Monday, October 17, 2011

It's a Title AND Subgenre In One!

As a 12 year old bookworm, I began, in 1994, reading Peter Straub’s novel Ghost Story on a school band trip. 
I was, as you can imagine, insanely hip.

If memory serves (a lot of it is questionable, since the cool kids clearly beat me up a lot at that age) I got about 100 pages into the rather slow-moving tale before something else caught my interest (V.C. Andrews? Mystery Science Theater 3000? Tonya Harding?) and I never reached 101.
What that says about the book is arguable. 1994 was probably the peak of my literary nerdom, so the fact that after getting a quarter of the way through, I never cared to finish might indeed mean I was bored with the storytelling. 17 years and a few more Olympic figure skating scandals later, the far less time consuming siren call of Netflix Instant Watch (or is that redundant now?) let me at least find out how the story ended. 

Quick Plot: Meet the Chowder Society, a fireside group of senior citizens who gather twice a month to drink brandy, be rich, and regale one another with scary tales. The gray-haired gang has been chums for over 50 years, all reaching professional success in their snowy New England town. Recently, each member has been experiencing sweat-inducing nightmares, much to the chagrin of their there-to-sigh-with-pots-of-coffee-wives.

The widowed Edward (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) gets more tragedy when his successful son David falls out of a window to his death. What no one knows is that David stumbled (full frontal nakedly, no less) after discovering his sleeping paramour was stone cold and corpse facey. Less successful son Don returns home for the funeral to act like a jerk before his mourning pops meets his own end after seeing the same corpse facey woman hanging out on a snow covered bridge.

Clearly, there’s a pattern going on here although thankfully, The Gorgeous Woman Who Makes Men Fall To Their Deaths does eventually vary her act. Sensing some secret between the surviving geezers (another one drops soon), Don talks his way into the club with own ghost story.
See, when Don was a fresh-faced young college professor, he left his dowdy girlfriend for the sexy British secretary. After a month of lovemaking and ice cream sundaes, the beauty--named Alma--proposed marriage in Don’s hometown, prompting their breakup, Don’s well deserved termination, and the subsequent engagement of Alma to Don’s dearly departed brother David.

Mystery afoot! Old men in danger! A 1930s flashback! Ghost Story unfolds as a good ghost story should, with layers of creepiness being built and stacked like a many-tiered cake. Unfortunately, like many a many-tiered cake, not all layers are created equal. 
See, when you have such heavyweights as Fred Astaire and John Houseman, it makes following a dull cad like Craig Wasson’s Don quite a pain. Wasson isn’t awful, but Don sure is. We’re introduced to a thirtysomething underachiever who’s been fired from his teaching job--quite rightfully, as we learn--and “isn’t writing much.” As a writer, few devices irk me more than moany film characters who fancy themselves tortured scribes but produce nothing of note.

That’s strike 1.
So what else does Don do to endear his permed self to us? Act like a jerk to his already sad dad, who recently lost his wife before the bizarre and tragic death of his favorite (and we see why, based on Don’s Donness) son. “Did you know I slept with David’s fiancee?” he taunts the poor old guy over dinner. Cute. Sure, we later learn exactly what he means by thing but there IS a thing called tact, even in New England.
Strike 2.
In flashback, we discover more about Don’s dance with the supernatural...which he brought upon himself by asking a woman out for lunch immediately after kissing his own girlfriend goodbye for breakfast. Come ON dude.

I wouldn’t mind an unlikable protagonist if Ghost Story did something with it, and it kind of almost sort of does. Really all the males are weak, slightly misogynist folks, something that makes sense once the ultimate (and not too shocking) secret of their past is revealed. Perhaps there’s a deeper examination about how Ghost Story explores male entitlement, but I think such an observation is more perception than intent.
It would help if Don had ANYTHING redeeming, or if any female character did more than sleep with or comfort her man. Sure, Alice Krige wears multiple hats (though rarely much clothing) but she’s a type rather than person. The woman scorned or hungry sexpot, a symbol meant to drive the plot and look good while doing it. It doesn’t necessarily not work on all levels, but overall, it’s just impossible to care.
High Points
The first two deaths unfold with slightly dated (hello Lair of the White Worm style plummets) but still effective build-up and follow-through, particularly with the old fashioned camera trick of ghost fuzzings.

Low Points
As I’ve mentioned before in such films as The Lady In White and The Changeling, vengeful ghost stories tend to lay stagnant with me once the particulars of how to right the wrong is revealed
Lessons Learned
Never trust a woman that realllllly wants to meet your family

In order to keep your enjoyable teaching job, remember to occasionally go to school and teach
If you want your husband to live to that nice and cozy vacation he just promised you, remember to never do anything loving or sweet or that remotely demonstrates that you might have happy days still ahead

Ghost Story is a film made of its time, an odd not always comfortable mix of the 70s gothic revival and incoming sleaze of the 1980s. Aspects of that work, mostly because it includes thespian royalty. Other parts--okay, anything involving the deplorable Don--tried my patience. At 110 minutes, Ghost Story is not a quick watch, but if you’re someone who really digs, well, ghost stories, it’s certainly something worth a glance. I was personally let down, but this isn’t my genre and you know...I really hated that Don.


  1. Speaking of ghost stories, have you ever seen a film, Nightmare at the End of the Hall? I bought it a few weeks ago but haven't gotten around to watching it yet, and I'm dreading doing so (though the DVD case compares the film to The Changeling and The Huanting which could either be an accurate comparison, or TOTALLY ludicrous!).

  2. I know nothing of it. I'm pretty picky about ghost stories, so please report back if you think it's worth a watch.

  3. All I remember from this movie was a bunch of old guys having night terrors (and naked Alice Krige of course). Wasson was pretty bad, but seemed the actor du jour during the early 80's. Liked the book quite a bit and actually read it three times, have you ever tried to revisit it? The main character isn't nearly as big a douche as in the movie and the ending is different.

  4. I don't know that I blame Wasson entirely, since his character is written to be such an asshole. The lack of charm in the actor certainly doesn't help though!

    I'm definitely interested in revisiting the book. Maybe old age will help.

  5. I honestly can't remember if I saw this as a kid or not. I know I started reading the book but couldn't get into, and if I did start watching the film then I know I didn't finish it. Or did I? Hmm. It's been 20 years, leave me be.

    Speaking of Peter Straub adaptations, I highly recommend "Julia's Ghost" starring Mia Farrow. It was based on his novel "Julia" (which I haven't read) - I guess they changed the title to avoid confusion with the Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave film from 1977. Checking IMDB, it seems it is also called "Full Circle" and "The Haunting of Julia".

    And looking around, I can't see ANYONE calling it "Julia's Ghost". Did I have it wrong all this time? Who knows?

    Tellingly, I can't actually remember anything of the film except that I thought it was great. Again, it's been 20 years. I do know for a fact that I watched it though (but never did read the novel).

  6. I'll definitely look for Julia's Ghost. Mia Farrow is pretty perfect to cast in a ghost story, so I feel like the movie already works. Doesn't look like Netflix has it under any of those titles though, so it shall go on the long list.

    Also, I think a duck monster is stealing your memories (a la Neverending Story II). Look into that.

  7. All I can remember from this flick is.. people falling from windows, and "Hey! Thats the guy from body double"..

    The only Straub book I read was The Talisman (with stephen king)..i remember liking it very much.

  8. Seriously, a lot of people fall to their deaths in this one. Plus you see a penis the first time, so I can see why it's memorable.

  9. I have to admit, I really love this movie. Probably one of those 'old age' things cause I read the book when I was young (still my favorite horror novel) and was so excited to see the adaptation. It's really not that great, but for some reason I dig it. Alice Krige is the bees knees as far as spooky goes.

    I am in your corner though about Don - he annoys me just breathing. What is it about him? The old men kept dying and I kept thinking: why not Donny!?

  10. I do love alice Krige. She has such a perfect aura for these kinds of roles. I'll definitely give the novel another go one of these days.

    And yes, Don SUCKS! What a horrid horrid man! Thank you for supporting my hate!

  11. I have tried to watch Ghost Story like fifteen times on Netflix. At best, I've only made it ten minutes past the penis before I end up falling asleep. Penises just tire me out, I suppose.

  12. They can be REALLY exhausting Matt. I don't know how you boys carry them around all day.

  13. I must confess that I have never read a V.C. Andrews novel. I bought a couple, but haven't opened them.

    Do I get a pass for at least watching the movie version of Flowers in the Attic?

  14. Well, KINDA. I despise the film version on some levels, but that's mostly nostalgia because I used to LOVE the book. In a lot of ways, Flowers In the Attic is responsible for my entire existence as a bookworm. Once I finished it, I became obsessed with reading the series (5 books in all) followed by everything V.C. Andrews ever wrote or ghost wrote.

    It's been about ten years since I last read a "V.C. Andrews" book (quotations since most weren't written by her) and the last few felt pretty rote. I'm slightly curious to revisit her original works to see how they hold up from an adult perspective, although I'd hate to be crushed if they turned out awful. I often use them in my anti-Twilight crusade because I always thought her heroines were what Bella SHOULD be. If I'm wrong, I'll be heartbroken!

  15. The atmosphere of the film is what worked the most for me. There is always a sense of "something's not right here", and it's more to do with the visual style than Craig Wasson's/Don's anti-charisma. And I remember being an eleven year old kid when the movie premiered and being especially scared/shocked by the ghost/ghoul makeups. In the thirty years since then I've certainly discovered the flaws in the movie, but it hasn't terribly diminished its entertainment value, not for me anyway. I'd say it holds up quite well to most attempts at the genre today.

  16. A good deal of it (I think) is that great wintery setting, something I'll fall for in any movie! And having old people as your (mostly) main characters makes it quite interesting for me. I love the effects, which aren't overly advanced but have a weirdly haunting vibe to them. I just wish Don wasn't so awful!

  17. I may have to see if this is on Netflix; I'd always avoided the movie because I heard it was so different from the book, which I loved, but your description has me curious now if they've changed some things from the book that had a major effect.

    Your comments about the misogyny of the tale, specifically, makes me wonder if something which was established but not much elaborated upon in the novel was left out of the movie: that "Alma" is not the only one of her kind. Knowing that there are male equivalents of Alma out there who do the same thing she does, manipulate hapless humans to their destructions and then come back in the next generation to do the same to their descendants, kind of defanged any perceptions of misogyny that might have occurred to me - but yeah, if it was presented to me as "hey, there's a supernatural creature whose game is to manipulate members of the opposite sex and cause them misery with her irresistable wiles so cleverly that, like, it LOOKS LIKE they caused their own problems, by being stupid and thinking with their crotches? but it's AKCHALLY all the fault of the supernatural creature - and of course, the supernatural creature is female and all her victims are male" - then yeah, I think there'd be a part of me saying "this is perhaps an author who has Certain Issues".

    (IIRC, in the book it's also well-established that the influence of the supernatural creature is causing a lot of the past and future misery by the time we hear about Don's behavior in academia - so when he recounts his caddish behavior and even elaborates on the pain it caused to innocents, but places the blame on an influence Alma exerted over him that he was powerless to resist - we have reason to believe that he's actually telling the truth, that he had no realistic way to outwit the plans of an entity with hundreds of years of experience in manipulating mortals, not when he had no idea what was happening. Since the camera can't see into the heads of characters, I'm trying to think how Don's story could possibly be filmed in such a way to indicate that he isn't in control of his actions, and coming up blank.)

  18. Thanks for your thoughts Antaeus! It's been a few years since I've watched it now so I can't remember some of the particulars. I don't recall anything about 'other' types of spirits, although I could just be forgetting them. I do really think the idea of exploring the sort of entitled misogyny of the male characters was interesting, but I just had SUCH a hard time dealing with an unlikable lead.

    I've been tinkering with the idea of going back and reading the novel. I might save it for a nice wintery break. Seems like that will be the best reading atmosphere for it!