Halloween Review: Ghost Story

In 1981, Universal adapted Peter Straub’s horror novel into a film. It’s a fascinating take on the story, featuring the final performances of some famous names, but it makes significant changes to the source material. This works both in the film’s favour, and against it.

Title: Ghost Story

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by John Irvin
Written by Lawrence D. Cohen and Peter Straub

Fred Astaire as Ricky Hawthorne
Melvyn Douglas as Dr. John Jaffrey
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Edward Charles Wanderley
John Houseman as Sears James
Craig Wasson as Don Wanderley / David Wanderley
Patricia Neal as Stella Hawthorne
Alice Krige as Eva Galli / Alma Mobley
Jacqueline Brookes as Milly
Miguel Fernandes as Gregory Bate
Lance Holcomb as Fenny Bate

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.


A group of men meet monthly to tell ghost stories. They hide an old secret, however, and it eventually returns to haunt them– and the people close to them.

High Points:

I address the negative aspects of the changes to the film’s key adversary later. She’s less terrifying in the film—but the motives can be better understood, her abilites, more consistent, and the changes permit the film to dodge a host of questions which the novel raises, but cannot really answer. Although the novel’s concept was superior, the movie develops something that works better in context.

Low Point:

Really? With others available, they send one cop out to the abandoned spooky house which they have good reason to believe houses an escaped mental patient identified as “dangerous?” What else was happening in town that day?

The Low Point of the novel also applies here, though its less egregious. The movie cuts much of the novel, and has far less to which it must measure up.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 The changed nature of the source of the evil is easier to grasp and leaves fewer unanswered questions. However, it is less original, and means that many of the novel’s deeper issues remain largely unexplored. I leave it as a puzzle to those who read and view which explanation ultimately works better.

Effects: 4/6 The effects are passable, but not spectacular.

Production: 6/6 The film features strong production values. Some may find the music (and other elements) to be a bit cheesy, but I think the choices were deliberate. We also get some interesting effects with lighting and filters.

Acting: 5/6 Ghost Story marks the final screen appearances of legendary actors Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and many others. It features a late performance by Patricia Neal, whose lengthy and distinguished includesThe Day the Earth Stood Still and a role on a tv anthology series called Ghost Story. In some instances the chemistry could be stronger, but Astaire remains inspired casting for Ricky Hawthorne.

Alice Krige does well enough, but the role requires something more.

Story: 4/6 The screenplay simplifies the complex relationships of novel,and conflates, relocates, and eliminates key scenes. The number of characters has been minimized, and the film’s version of Gregory has not been developed at all.

For a movie cut down from a long book, the pacing nevertheless drags in places, while, predictably, becoming choppy in others.

Emotional Response: 4/6 Ghost Story makes for an interesting horror film, though viewers will find it more than little creaky in places.

Overall: 4/6. In the novel, the creature is an ancient shape-shifter who feeds on humans and has a major dislike for the Chowder Society and their town, after an incident in 1929 when they inadvertently killed her, or, strictly speaking, slowed her down. Her species inspired stories of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night-time of our imagination. Their rather alien nature and motives cannot be fully understood by humans. This one has a fondness for appearing as a human female. Her enigmatic Aunt may be another, possibly older such creature, or may be some other thing that manipulates them.
In the movie, the creature is the woman they killed in 1920, who somehow returns as a revenant, after gaining strength over fifty years. The aunt does not appear in the film, and the creature’s motives are easier to grasp. Her simplified nature means that we avoid the large-scale attacks of the book.

In total, Ghost Story receives 30/42.

This year’s Halloween Countdown

Oct. 6: Devil Seed (2012)
Oct. 13: Frankenweenie (1984, 2012)
Oct. 20: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)
Oct. 27: Sinister (2012)
Oct. 31: Ghost Story (1981)