Tuesday, November 17, 2015

GHOST STORY (1981) (Blu-ray Review)

Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: November 24th 2015 
Region Code: A
Duration: 110 Minutes
Rating: R
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: John Irvin
Cast: Alice Krige, Craig Wasson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal

Synopsis: In a peaceful New England town, the four lifelong friends who make up the Chowder Society come together each week to regale each other with tales of terror. But when one of the elderly gentlemen experiences a family tragedy, it becomes apparent that a buried secret from their youth has arisen to remind them of the sins of their past. Soon, they will learn they have never been forgiven… and a supernatural vengeance awaits them all. Craig Wasson, Patricia Neal, and Alice Krige also star in this chilling and atmospheric telling of one of horror's greatest stories.

At the start of this movie four old men gather around a fireplace sipping brandy and listening to a scary story as told by Sears James, played by venerable actor John Housman, whom you may recall also told a scary stories around a fire in John Carpenter's The Fog (1981) the very same year this one came to theatres. The old men belong to a group whom have dubbed themselves the Chowder Society, the three other men are Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire),  Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyin Douglas), Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). The foursome are lifelong residents of the small New England town and all four not only share scary stories with each other, but harbor a dark secret from their past which has come back to haunt them, with each suffering from vivid nightmares. 
Wanderley receives word that his son David has been killed in a horrific accident, having fallen to his death after crashing through a plate glass window. There's more to the story and we see what ghoulish happening lead to David's tragic death, but I don't want to spoil it, this is worth watching cold. Wanderley sends for his son Don (Craig Wasson), an aspiring author and recently unemployed college professor, to return home for the funeral of his brother. Father and son argue over dinner that night, Don thinks there may be more to the story of his brothers death, but his father refuses to hear what he has to say on the matter. The next day Wanderley Sr. wanders out into the snow, following what he believes to be his deceased son David, he follows him onto a bridge where he is startled by a spectre and falls to his death onto the frozen river below, his death mirroring his son's demise. 

Afterward the survivors of the Chowder Society allow Don to join them, and the young Wanderly regales them with a spooky story about a former lover whom as it turns out is somehow linked to not just the death of his brother but to the four members of the Chowder society, and dark secret the elderly men have kept hidden away until now, but their secret has come back to haunt them and threatens to destroy them all. 

They just don't make atmospheric ghost stories like this one anymore, this classic is loaded with a rich atmosphere and sense of dread, the snowy New England setting superb through and through.  It's one of those rare movies that gives you the chills while you watch it, and so few movies can do that anymore. They don't achieve this with cheap jump-scares and shock-a-minute editing either, it's done through deliberate slow-burn storytelling, this is the good stuff, this is a timeless scary movie. Having four Hollywood legends playing the four frightened old men was inspired, these guys give their roles every last ounce they had, with three of the four actors dying before or shortly after the movie was released into the cinemas, though somehow the already ancient Houseman endured for a few more years, appearing in yet another winter-classic, Richard Donner's cult-classic Scrooged (1988). 

Actor Craig Wasson appears in the dual-role of the Wanderley twins David and Don, the guy gets crapped on a lot in my opinion but I've always liked him and he should have gone on to bigger and better things, but after Brian De Palma's Body Double the guy seemed to evaporate, though he did pop up in A Nightmare on Elm street 3: Dream Warriors. Alice Krige also plays two sides of a coin as the otherworldly ladies Eva and Alma, Krige has a mysterious and exotic air about her, she fits the role perfectly, coming across as both sensual and cold, sometimes in the same scene. You might remember here as the twisted incestuous mother from Sleepwalkers or maybe the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact.

Something this movie offers is a surprising amount of visceral gore with an array of awesome Dick Smith produced special effects. The spectre that is haunting the men appears from time to time as a spectral corpse, each time appearing slightly different from the last, and each one of them is awesome, particularly the last one. A door is opened and the corpse appears to move towards one of the men before falling to the ground with the decayed facial skin peeling away from the skull. You don't often get any sort of gore with a classic ghost stories, but as this was made during the peak of the '80s slasher-cycle I think the producers wanted to amp up the shock-value, and I think they made a wise decision, this stuff is great. 

On top of the creepy corpse designs you have a great Eastern setting in rural New England, a place covered in snow, an idyllic setting that would not be out of place in a traditional Christmas story, but instead of the ghost of Christmas past we have the ghost of wronged-lovers past, and this ones back from the grave with a vengeance. The winter-setting is pitch perfect and is helped in no small way by the expertly crafted matte painting of Albert Whitlock who so perfectly captured and enhanced the snowy ghost story with his artistry. More movie need to have a winter setting, there's something so eerie about the winter, maybe its the chill in the air, or the bare branches, but its an underused environment in my opinion. 

I had remembered only bits and pieces of this movie from TV viewings as a kid, I remember it scared me bad in my youth and I was only able to watch it through my hand covered-eyes, so it was a true joy to watch it now in full and enjoy it for the haunting non-linear story that it is. Honestly I put this is right up there with The Changeling and Robert Wise's The Haunting as ghost stories go, this is a top five classic of all time in my opinion. 

Audio/Video: Ghost Story arrives on Blu-ay for the first time from Scream Factory and looking very good in HD, with an organically grainy appearance offering some decent fine detail in a few of the close-ups, especially with the gruesome Dick Smith ghost-corpses, very creepy stuff, check out the still shots in this review. The color scheme is cold and autumnal with the browns being the most dominant. The DTS-HD MA Mono 2.0 audio is crisp and clean with the evocative Philippe Sarde score coming through with some immediacy, a very atmospheric score. 

While Scream Factory did not make this a collector's edition Blu-ray I think they should have, just so I could have a cool slipcase for this one. There's quite a bit of good supplemental material beginning with an audio commentary from Director John Irvin, which I have not had a chance to view yet. I did watch all the other extras, there's a great 40-minute interview with author Peter Straub who speaks at length about his process and writing this particular story, how he researched Eastern small town life, and he also reads from several passages in the book. 

There's a 29-minute feature about adapting the source material for the cinema with screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, and movie producer Burt Weissbourd, who speak about what sacrifices and challenges presented themselves during the process of adapting the lengthy story,  capturing the essence of a story in a screenplay and how that differs from the source material. Actress Alice Krige appears in a 29-minute interview speaking about her unexpected path towards acting, her early career and how she came to be in the movie. she also speaks about her take on the character and what it was like appearing nude on film, plus working with such a great cast of legendary actors and what she learned from the experience

The last of the interviews is with Matte Photographer Bill Taylor who focuses on the visual effects of Albert Whitlock and the many visual and matte effects used in the film, speaking about the process and how certain shots in the movie were achieved. He also goes into how a shortage of snow that winter which proved challenging, commenting to some degree on Dick Smith's excellent work on the movie as well. Bonus features are finished-up with an assortment of trailers, TV and radio spots, an image gallery of promotional shots and a sleeve of reversible artwork. 

Special Features
- NEW Audio Commentary By Director John Irvin
- NEW Ghost Story Genesis - Interview With Author Peter Straub (40 Mins) HD 
- NEW Alice Krige: Being Alma and Eva (29 Mins) HD 
- NEW Ghost Story Development - Interviews With Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and Producer Burt Weissbourd (29 Mins) HD 
- NEW Albert Whitlock Visual Effects With Matte Photographer Bill Taylor (29 Mins) HD 
- Vintage Theatrical Trailer (2 Mins) 
- TV Spots (1 Mins)  
- Radio Spots (1 Mins) HD 
- Photo Gallery (9 Mins) HD 

Ghost Story is a great old fashioned haunter with some serious atmosphere and a surprising amount of horrific special effects work peppered throughout. It also stars a cast of Hollywood veterans whom might have been at the end of their careers and turning in memorable performances with some depth, and they're backed up by a solid turn from the underrated Craig Wasson and an otherworldly performance from Alice Krige, this is a classic ghost story. The Blu-ray from Scream Factory is top-notch with a pleasing A/V presentation and with over two-hours of new interviews with cast and crew this is a very highly recommended release. 4.5/5