Ghost Story (1981): Astaire Does the Old Soft Shoe With a Specter

When it comes to favorite horror film creatures, some people love vampires or zombies or werewolves, but if I were to choose I would say that I love a ghost story best. The problem comes when people ask me what some good films with ghosts are. Sure there are a few I can mention like The Changeling and The Innocents, but for the most part when it comes to spooks, the movies tend to be the overblown like in White Noise or (bleck) The Sixth Sense, rather than chilling. So I’m always on the lookout for a tale of the supernatural that will chill me to the bone. Today, I’m happy to say that I found one of those films, and while it might not be a total classic, it sure spins one great yarn.

In 1979, Peter Straub published his fifth novel (his third with supernatural themes), Ghost Story. The novel sprang to the best sellers list and solidified his reputation as a horror novelist alongside Steven King with whom Straub would co-write The Talisman in 1984. Naturally when the novel did so well, Hollywood came calling. Directing duties landed on John Irvin who had garnered critical praise for his 1980 film The Dogs of War starring Christopher Walken. The only points in Irvin’s résumé that pointed to an eye for suspenseful horror were a pair of British television productions one of which being 1974’s Possessions with Anthony Hopkins, but armed with a script by Lawrence D. Cohen, who had previously adapted Carrie (1976), Irvin made a spectacular choice that really made the film. That choice was to cast in Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Fred Astaire in the lead roles of The Chowder Society.

Fifty years ago, a terrible secret tainted the group of friends that made up The Chowder Society. The secret, and its consequences, they have kept fended off for years with a veil of silence and weekly meetings where they swap ghost stories. When the son of charter member Edward Wanderlay (Fairbanks Jr.) mysteriously falls to his death, Wanderlay  calls his other son David (Craig Wasson) to come home. David already thinks there is something suspicious about his brother’s death, but when his father also falls to his death mysteriously, David begins to dig into his father’s past. There, combined with his own sad tale of love lost, he begins to unfold the murderous secret of The Chowder Society. With the reluctant help of members Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Dr. Jaffey (Melvyn Douglas), and Sears James (John Houseman), David pieces together the mystery, but it might be too late to save any of their lives.

What originally attracted me to this film, other than the promise of ghostly happenings, was the appearance of the four veteran actors, and none of them disappointed. This was the last film for Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks Jr, (Houseman would continue to perform until 1988 when his last film role came in an uncredited appearance as a driving instructor in The Naked Gun (1988)). Fairbanks Jr. has the least screen time of the four, but the star of 1939’s Gunga Din sells his brief performance. Houseman plays the gruff tyrannical grouch as usual. His character Sears comes off like a cross between Houseman’s Smith-Barney commercials and his hard-as-nails legal professor from The Paper Chase.

The only one of the four with previous horror credits is Douglas who starred in James Whale’s The Old Dark House and opposite Lugosi in The Vampire Bat. Douglas gave my favorite performance, emotionally powerful and well hewn, but the clear star is Fred Astaire. The former song and dance man gives a sensitive performance, and his charisma clearly carries the film through a number of slow spots. Some of his best scenes come opposite Craig Wasson, an actor that horror fans will know as Neil Gordon in Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors. Wasson gives great and very different performances as both David and his high powered brother Don.

A good half of the film is told in flashback that features Wasson almost exclusively along with Alice Krieg, an actress who will forever be the Borg Queen to me. Krieg’s character runs throughout the story targeting the life of both David and Don but also The Chowder Society. Krieg has a great eternal look and it made her perfect for the role. More surprising was the large amount of skin she showed off in this film. Judging from the sex scene between Krieg and Wasson’s characters, Picard don’t know what he missed out on. While the flashbacks are a necessity for the film, they also make it very slow going. Just when I was really getting involved in the characters, the film shoots off in a different direction for nearly thirty minutes. Ghost Story runs just under two hours, and I think that it could have been much more streamlined. The slow pace did serve to build tension, which is paid off with a few well placed shocks, but much of what is shown seems superfluous with only a tenuous connection to the main story.

Cinematography was handled by the legendary lensman Jack Cardiff whose credits include classics like The Red Shoes (1948), The Vikings (1958), and Rambo: First Blood: Part II (1985). The cold brutal nature of the New England winter definitely informs the film and Cardiff brings that cold sense of mystery through the screen. The score by French composer Philippe Sarde also informs this mood with his classically inspired score bringing to mind the staid aristocracy of the Chowder Society. Interestingly, Sarde also provided the score for Astaire’s next to last film, 1977’s Un taxi mauve.

All of these pieces should fit together perfectly to make Ghost Story a classic film, but the pacing of the story is so haphazard that it really cut into my enjoyment of the film. If it hadn’t been for the presence of the four powerhouse veteran actors, my attention likely would have waned somewhere around the hour mark. Ghost Story is a good supernatural film, but I can’t say it is a great one. Fans of Astaire, Douglas, or Fairbanks Jr. will surely enjoy seeing the actors have one last hurrah, but if this Ghost Story were being told while camping, you wouldn’t have a bonfire just a slow, slow burn.

Bugg Rating 


  1. I didn't think much of this film, but it's a great moment, as I remember it, when a villain tells Astaire, "You're gonna die," and the old man responds, "Like hell I will." If you can't dance, that's how you end a career.

  2. This has been a fave of mine for years. I found the story to drag at points, but as you said, the presence of such legendary actors really made me embrace it. I have a VHS copy of it, and one of the days I will hunt down the DVD.

  3. I've always held a great fondness for this film, even though the book is one of my favorites and is so much better than the movie...

    But I love some of the quiet moments of horror - Eva standing behind a tree glaring out - or her on that snow covered road, right before Houseman gets his.
    A slow burn, yes. But it does leave a scar.

    And Pax - it's on Amazon for around 13 bucks:)

  4. jervaise brooke hamsterMay 17, 2010 at 6:13 PM

    Alice krige was quite a tasty bird back in `81 although at the time of filming she was 26 so 8 years past her peak already (strickly speaking).

  5. I love this novel, and for that reason have always avoided the film because it attracts such lackluster notices. Maybe one day I'll get around to it . . . or maybe I'll just read the book again.

  6. C.L. Haddon is a hot chick.


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