This Week in Horror Movie History – Ghost Story (1981)

This week in horror movie history, on December 16th in 1981 Ghost Story was released in theaters across the USA. This somber take on Peter Straub’s 1979 novel was directed by John Irvin (Raw Deal 1986, Hamburger Hill 1987) and written by horror master Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie 1976, IT, 1990). The movie stars Hollywood veterans Fred Astaire (Funny Face 1957, The Towering Inferno 1974), Melvyn Douglas (The Changeling 1980, Hud 1963), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Little Caeser 1931, Hollywood Uncensored 1987), John Houseman (The Fog 1980, Rollerball 1975), Craig Wasson (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warrior 1987, Malcolm X 1992) and Alice Krige (Silent Hill 2006, Star Trek: First Contact 1996) as Eva Galli/Alma Mobley. Ghost Story was the last feature film for Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and, coincidentally, both Astaire and Douglas are mentioned in Peter Straub’s novel. Produced by Universal Pictures, Ghost Story overflows with talent, not only in its cast, but boasting Dick Smith (The Exorcist 1973, The Godfather 1972) in charge of makeup, special effects done by Rick Baker (Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope 1977, Men in Black 1997) and Phillippe Sarde (The Tenant 1976, Tess 1979) composing the music as well. Filmed mostly in New York and Woodstock, Vermont, the picture earned a respectable twenty three million dollars at the box office and was nominated for the Best Horror Film Saturn Award in 1982.

Still from Ghost Story
Still from Ghost Story

Ghost Story revolves around the Chowder Society, a group of four elderly but well-to-do gents: business owner Ricky Hawthorne (Astaire), lawyer Sears James (Houseman), Dr. John Jaffrey (Douglas) and the town’s Mayor, Edward Charles Wanderley (Fairbanks), that gather once a month to tell fabricated tales of terror, their heads haloed by cigar smoke and with brandy on their breath. But not all of their stories are fiction. It seems that the longer you live, the more secrets you own. And for the four men of the Chowder society, the biggest secret they have may be the one that’s going to take them to their graves. They’ve spent their nights telling fictitious abominations to stave off the memory of a real horror committed by them long ago, but now, fifty years later, it seems as if this secret has decided to unearth itself. A father’s sins befall the son. Just before Edward, frightened by a ghostly visage, falls to his death off of a snowy bridge, his own son David (Wasson) had seen something so terrifying, he jumped through a plate glass window many stories high. Edward’s remaining son, David’s twin Don (also played by Wasson), pleads his own case to the surviving members of the Chowder Society, a tale that seems to link not only his brother’s death to his father’s, but also to the fifty year old tragedy the men have tried their damnedest to forget. With one 1931 photograph of a girl named Eva Galli and the unearthly story of his ex-fiancé, Alma Mobley, Don convinces the Chowder Society to act. It seems that the girl in the photo is none other than his Alma, unchanged in over fifty years. He had broken it off with her when her sweet nature turned into freaky comments and an obsession with going to Don’s hometown for their wedding. When he found out that Alma had tricked his brother David into falling in love with her, he could not get to him fast enough to stop the tragedy. Don’s story leaves the men solemn. That night, John has a heart attack and dies after dreaming of Eva. All the while trying to avoid Eva/Alma’s hoodlum protégées, Gregory (Miguel Fernandes) and Fenny (Lance Holcomb), the last two standing Chowder Society members tell Don the fifty year old story of Eva Galli.

Still from Ghost Story
Still from Ghost Story

When the four septuagenarians were young men, they had all met and fallen in love with a beautiful stranger. There was no jealousy between them until Edward implies that he has had sex with Eva, even though the act was a failure. The other boys get drunk and decide that they want their turn to “dance” with the lovely girl. Pissed at the sexual nature of their visit, Eva threatens to tell the boys about Edward’s impotence, so he pushes her and she hits her head on the marble mantle. Pre-med John insists that she has no pulse. To avoid a scandal, Sears suggests they put her body in the car and drive it into the water. Just as it sinks, they see her face in the window, screaming. They could not get to the car in time, and she has been there ever since, cold and forgotten on the bottom of a deep pond, and now her ghost has awakened and wants its revenge. The men now realize that the only way they can stay alive is to stop Eva/Alma, so they go to her old house, where Don falls through the floor and breaks his leg. Sears is attacked in his car by Fenny as he leaves to get help, and Ricky is picked up by Gregory. Ricky gets the jump on him and stabs him, causing them to crash. Surviving the crash, Ricky convinces the local cops to drag the pond where the old car and Eva’s body is lying. Back at the house, Alma appears to the freezing Don, her face covered in a veil, and just as she shows him her horrible true face, the car door is opened and Eva’s water-logged body launches at Ricky, only to fall to the snowy ground and disintegrate before their eyes, its magic gone upon its discovery. Alma/Eva’s ghost disappears forever.

Still from Ghost Story
Still from Ghost Story

Ghost Story was met with mixed reviews upon its release. Rotten Tomatoes gives it only a 36% fresh rating. Roger Ebert gave it a positive review, saying, “Ghost stories should always begin as this one does, in shadows so deep that the flickering light of the dying fire barely illuminates the apprehensive faces of the listeners.” A movie like this does make one wonder about the secrets hidden behind the eyes of every Senior citizen they pass on the street. Every gentle old man or feeble granny was once young and vibrant and full of mischief. They have had a lot of time, and a lot of life, to cause some trouble, and also a lot of that same time to bury that trouble deep.

ghost story poster
Universal Pictures

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