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Archive for September 16th, 2019

Melanie and Jillian at Renaissance Faire

by Sam Juliano

It’s that time of the year again, the ‘horrific’ lead-up to Halloween and our compatriot Jamie Uhler’s premium investigation into classic and contemporary horror in the cinema.  This year his debut selection is J. Irvin’s supernatural Ghost Story from 1981.  His brilliant capsule follows:

Ghost Story (J. Irvin… 1981) ghost/supernatural

Prompting this selected was an interview I saw with Peter Straub, the writer of the 1979 breakthrough book to which the film is based. In a roundtable discussion on conjuring frights on the page, several prominent scary scribes where on hand (including most famously Stephen King), but when Straub’s first answer explored the basic idea of just telling scary stories within a group, he and I had an idea to get this season’s watching underway.
His story (and thus film) opens like Octave Mirbeau’s masterfully righteous novel The Torture Garden, with several old, clearly successful men leisurely sitting around a fire lit den, brandies in hand, attempting to out-spook the other. It’s a clear anthology-like linking device, you could jump into many different stories this way, while always having a quick return out, but again, like Torture Garden, Irvin and Straub settle in for the long haul. We’re not entirely prompted to via a tale—that’s where we break from Mirbeau— and instead see our old friend’s conclude their night, clearly understanding it’s a ritual that has held together these incredibly long friendships, a ritual they’ve donned as ‘the Chowder Club’. The spooky entry makes a clear point, appearing at the height of the slasher era, here is an old fashioned chiller by all appearances, and if it wasn’t already crystal, the parade of former Hollywood heavies on hand only reinforces the idea; around the fire is none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Edward), Fred Astaire (Ricky), John Houseman (Sears) and Melvyn Douglas (John) (who is partially reunited with Hud costar Patrica Neal [Stella], who plays Ricky’s wife), many appearing in their final films. A cut jumps us to New York City the next morning, where we see man (whom we in time learn is Edward’s son) murdered when his lover’s body suddenly turns to a corpse and scares him right through a large window where he falls dozens of stories to his death. The cut makes it seem like a vignette in a (previously mentioned) Horror Anthology, as we’re largely left piecing together character connections in subsequent scenes after first not understanding the sudden shift. When Edward’s other son returns home (both sons played by Body Double’s Craig Wasson) additional murders happen, the corpse girl either bringing about suicides or picking off Chowder Club members one by one, before the film’s second half pieces together two flashback ‘scary stories’ told by members of the group connecting the series of events going back some half a century. This interesting story-telling device, a near quasi-Anthology film that isn’t, is the most thought-provoking idea in the film, and perhaps handled slightly better, could make for masterpiece level stuff. As it is, it’s slightly stiff and short on scares, wasting what could have been thrilling stuff. I Know What You Did Last Summer tread similar water and was similarly a book and a film, and while that doesn’t have a genius like Jack Cardiff behind the camera, produces some actual scares, and is more than willing to acknowledge that killing off a cast one-by-one is Ten Little Indians slasher stuff, a trope Ghost Story appears to look down its nose at. Surprisingly it shouldn’t, as I Know What You Did Last Summer—while pure teenage trash for the most part—is able to better maneuver the ethical quandary where we’re supposed to hope characters live, but who we know actually probably deserve bloody retribution from a person whose life they ended, accidental or not, thus prompted the creation of a ghost in the first place. Oh well, not a terrible way to start. (more…)

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