Vic’s Review – “Ghost Story” (1981)


What’s it About?

Four successful elderly gentlemen, members of the Chowder Society, share a gruesome, 50-year old secret. When one of Edward Wanderley’s twin sons dies in a bizarre accident, the group begins to see a pattern of frightening events developing.

“Ghost Story”

Directed by John Irvin

8 out 0f 10

By Vic

Ghost Story is based on the very lengthy and popular novel of the same name by Horror scribe Peter Straub (The Talisman, Floating Dragon and my favorite, Shadowland). It is impeccable directed by Director John Irvin, who has brought us some decent films like Dogs Of War, Hamburger Hill and the raucous Raw Deal. It is because of Lawrence D. Cohen’s (Stephen King’s IT, The Tommyknockers and South pacific) somewhat prolific ability to weave a tight and creepy story and Irvin’s distinct direction that makes Ghost Story an elegantly made shockfest. No cheap scares here.

We receive a chilling story in the vein of films like The Uninvited, The Haunting and even The Changeling. We get good characters that we care for and learn from. In this movies’ case it is the four men of “The Chowder Society” that are the catalyst of what eventually becomes a true and gripping tale of a long held secret that can no longer be kept.

The Chowder Society members are as follows – Fred Astaire is Ricky, Douglas Fairbanks is Edward, John Houseman is Sears and Melvyn Douglas is John. They, in their old age, gather in New England around a fire once a week, drink brandy and tell “ghosts stories” to scare the shit out of each other.

And scare each other they do. With stories about ghouls, monsters and even people that are buried alive in classic Poe-like fashion. It is very creepily done and during the telling, Irvin shows us the story live and in terrifying fashion. During the scene, the reanimated corpse claws at his coffin lid and Irvin shoots it as a clear  window into a horrible and ghastly look on the buried man’s face. At this point I’ve crapped my pants and have started to cover my eyes. I was in my early teens so cut me some slack.

The story commences though as Cohen moves the story to New York City where Ed’s son David runs afoul of a very strange and captivating female entity that mistakes him for his twin brother, Don. Or does she? Perhaps it is a ruse to get Don out into the open or does it go deeper than that? Well, suffice it to say it goes deeper than that and Don, after his brothers supposed suicide heads back to his home town in New England to be with his Father during this time of grief. Ed, though, hardly approves of what Don has done with his life. Don being an academic and author who is a bit down on his luck and not doing so well.

Don is played with a serious attitude that fits the film’s tone very well by the under-rated Craig Wasson (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 – Dream Warriors). Wasson is purely in tuned with Don’s character giving us a solemn young man who cares for his father though they are distant and somewhat estranged. Irvin even gives us a classic, moody shot of them eating opposite each-other at the dinner table cementing the impression of distance.

Things start to go awry once Don makes it back home. The elderly Chowder Society become victims of nightmares, visions and calamities of supernatural origins. Wasson tries to piece things together and he seems to have his own ghost story to tell as do the remaining Chowder Society. It involves the mysterious Eva Galli or Alma Mobley played by the very sexy but cold Alice Krige (Sleepwalkers, Star Trek First Contact). Somehow in the past, as the Chowder Society tells Don, something very bad happened to her and she was wronged by them.

Then ala “I Know What You Did Last Summer” they begin to slowly discover that karma has them dead in it’s sights as a wronged and vengeful ghost from the past (And Don’s past as well) comes to mete out her horrifying type of justice. Don’s story involves what seems to be the same woman (He met and fell in love with her during his college teaching days in an elaborate flashback that is chilling as well.) who is after him as well only because he is lineage.

Ghost Story is acted by the four leads with surreal aplomb. Every distinguished actor here gives a very prolific and classy performance. The stand outs being Houseman, who is always surly and pompous, and Astaire who is sympathetic and fatherly. Douglas and Fairbanks, though given very little screen time, are fantastic to watch. This movie oozes gothic mood, elegance and it boosts some kick ass scares that are well placed and do shock. As the story unravels and the story and secret are out does the movie take on a energetic and suspenseful pace. It’s something that even Hitchcock would have done if he had it in him to do a very balls to the wall horror movie.


The film never panders to the audience and the characters all make good decisions in order to survive even though their plans are thwarted by Eva’s 2 “Renfield” like companions, one of them being a fucked up feral kid that is just plain evil incarnate. Much like it’s familiars like The Changeling and even The Haunting we get creaky hallways, dark corridors and rooms, apparitions, evil children and some very amazing camerawork from Jack Cardiff (Rambo II and The African Queen).

Cardiff shoots the film using low angles, menacing establishing shots that harken back somewhat to the way the Bates House was shot. The interiors are lit with gloom and dark detail. One creepy scene, with Cardiff written all over it, involves a lift that appears out of nowhere in Don’s living room. So creepy and out of left field. It is a strong “what the hell?” moment.

Ok, in closing, I must mention 2 more great things about this movie. The score by Philippe Sarde (Polanki’s The Tenant and Tess) and the outstanding make up work by Dick Smith (The Exorcist) and his crew which also included Rick Baker (The Wolfman) and Carl Fullerton (The Friday the 13th Films). The ghastly make up job on the Eva “Ghost” is flat out insane for being practical make up. An excellent job. Sarde’s music is plain Hermann-esque and appropriately chilling.

The strings alone during the bombastic opening cues is classic. So, curl up on the sofa, gang and keep that fire going so you can tell your own “Ghost Story” to whom-ever will listen…Highly recommended! PS: Look out for an awesome and very frightening Bridge scene that takes place in broad daylight and manages to scare the crap outta me…


    • It’s not for everyone. It’s a slow burn and a deliberately paced ghost movie. In the early 80’s this piece felt weird and out of place among more popular and gory slasher and zombie movies. That’s why I loved it lol.

    • Neil! My man! Great to hear from you. I’m glad you liked the review. I hold GS in high regard as well. I’m looking forward to your next review bro! Thanks for stopping by.

    • Thanks Mark! It’s a good old fashioned ghost picture. All the best elements come together to create great mood, style and chills. I think you will enjoy it. Thanks for reading! 😀

  1. If you get a chance, check out the Dick Smith makeup that they rejected for this movie. One of the great missed opportunities, because they had more than one artist doing the makeup and it was uneven, but his design was brilliant.

    • Yeah, I will! I have some old magazines that cover Smith’s designs that Irvin rejected or didn’t use. One being the one where the apparition has just a huge mouth with teeth. Very creepy and inventive. Thanks for the info and stopping in!

  2. Haven’t seen this in ages! After reading this I feel like I’m due. I think it was the 90s when I last saw this. Scared me then. Wonder if it will now.

    • Still creeps me out royally. Give it another go and let me know if it holds up well for you. It does for me and Dick Smith’s ghost make up FX as well and that eerie score…man, oh man. Just cool, plain old school horror. Great mood, suspense and a smart twist. Shit, I want to watch it now…

      Thanks for checking out the review bro!

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