The only fair way to judge a film based on an exceptional book is to rate the big screen treatment as its own entity; pretend that the novel doesn’t exist, and that there was actually a screenwriter and/or studio executive inventive enough to conceptualize such an intriguing premise.
The biggest strike (and, belive me, there’s a gaggle) against John Irvin‘s 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub‘s multifaceted horror novel Ghost Story is that, as a stand-alone piece of cinema, it’s an absolute misfire. Has not one thing working in its favor; laughable when it’s not dull. With visual effects as poor as they come, Ghost Story would’ve left me as unimpressed back in ’81 as it does today.
Having just finished Straub’s great novel, now knowing what the author’s original vision was, and just how far off Irvin’s film lands in the paperback’s context, this film is an ultimate disaster. Continued after the jump:
Lawrence D. Gordon (who was coming off a quality screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Carrie, another book-to-Hollywood job, that time based off Stephen King’s debut novel) literally guts Straub’s work to string together the film’s Swiss-cheese-like script, leaving only loose viscera for Irvin and an otherwise-wonderful cast (including Fred Astaire, in his final role before his passing) to construct something resembling a scary picture.
The scope of their collective failure is staggering. Straub’s Ghost Story, inspired by King’s Salem’s Lot, uses the upstate New York town of Millburn to integrate over a dozen characters into its story, which centers on a group of four elderly lifelong friends—-dubbed the Chowder Society—-who are plagued by a force seeking vengeance over a 50-year-old tragedy. In the book, central plot-movers range from the four octogenarians to a couple of trouble-making teenagers, a Martian-chasing farmer, an older woman who drives all the younger men wild and other interesting locals. Using so many folks to tell his tale, Straub allows himself the leeway to stage one elaborate setpiece after another. And each is invested with a giddy horror fanatic’s sense of just-go-for-it; Straub works in shapeshifter able to play tricks on people’s minds, werewolves, vampires, people with deer-heads, and centuries-old demons.
Ghost Story the novel is a 560-page love letter to horror, and it’s a joy to read. I breezed through the thing in merely four workdays, with only hourlong train rides and pre-sleep downtime available for uninterrupted reading. Its imagination tally is through the roof.
This abomination of a film adaptation, on the other hand, ticks on by with a neutered limp. Two crucial characters are deleted altogether, while others have their personalities lessened. A gal with an Italian name speaks in a thick British accent. And all of the book’s fear-grabbing high-reach is trashed for a simple, ho-hum tortured spirit; no wolfmen or perception-tweaking shifters, only one ghost and a couple of useless assistants-to-evil carried over from Straub’s source material but stripped of their mutual intimidation. Instead of impactful deaths focused more on manipulating both the reader and the fictional victim’s sense of reality, Irvin’s film sticks to one kill tactic: a comical “Boo!” by a decrepit female face that oozes with horrible CG.
Even before the 10-minute mark, Irvin’s Ghost Story reveals itself to be unintentionally hilarious. After a scare that’s both telegraphed and anticlimactic, a naked guy crashes through a New York City high-rise’s window and shoots crashing down through more windows and then splatters next to an indoor pool. Not for one millisecond does the fall look borderline-real; it looks like when Conan O’Brien used to drive his desk—-really in front of a green screen—-around the streets of Manhattan.
I got the sense that the filmmakers and cast gave this film their all; it’s certainly not a throwaway job. But that doesn’t excuse the inept pre-production tools that should’ve never been greenlit, such as a dismal script and those involved accepting the fact that they were about to adapt an epic horror novel into a cramped movie. Like Tobe Hooper and his associates did with King’s Salem’s Lot, Irvin and crew should’ve pushed to turn Ghost Story into a sprawling television mini-series.
Hating on such an over-with, forgotten project nearly 30 years later, simply because I’m a newfound fan of the book, is pointless, I know. I just haven’t been this absorbed by a novel in a decent amount of time, and to know that Hollywood’s sole attempt to show the world its goodness is this wreck of a film stings me soul a little.
Here’s one horror remake that I’d welcome with open arms and a gift (bottle of wine, to show some class); cast Hal Holbrook and John Hurt and make it a miniseries, directed by Frank Darabont, and I’d be happier than a transsexual at a Lady Gaga concert.