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John’s Horror Corner: Ghost Story (1981), a slow burn horror-mystery about romance, revenge, and a haunting spanning generations.

February 20, 2019

MY CALL: This haunted classic better serves audiences seeking an engaging dark romantic thriller-mystery over horror, as the horror seems to come second—though truly horrific when presented. It’s more of an intriguing slow burn boasting occasional gooey gory imagery. MORE MOVIES LIKE Ghost Story: Perhaps The Changeling (1980) and Crimson Peak (2015).

A group of elderly men (incl. Fred Astaire) sit around a fireplace donning tuxedos and brandy in hand, telling campfire-style ghost stories and toasting to their secret society. They and their sons are haunted by nightmares of a woman’s ghost and, after some of them die strange deaths, Don (Craig Wasson; A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Schizoid, Carny)—son and brother to the deceased—returns to his home town to investigate.

Early scenes depict two men (one young, one old) frightened by a woman with a zombified face. One of them falls out a window to his death completely naked and the green-screening (or perhaps rotoscoping, at the time) will make you giggle. But make no mistake, this film’s tone is quite grave.

This film plays out more like a romantic thriller or a heavy drama than horror. The first flashback segment is fueled by an enthusiastic sex scene and an abundance of nudity. We learn of Don’s past love Alma (Alice Krige; Sleepwalkers, Stay Alive, Children of Dune), her secrecy of her own past and her strong interest in his, and her trance-like sleepwalking during which she says some creepy things that alienate Don in their relationship. We also flashback to the youth of the Chowder Society and their close relationship to a young lady named Eva, which also ends poorly.

I remember seeing this film with my mother on our movie night when I was maybe 13 (in the early 90s). At the time, it quite startled me and the image of a decaying skeletal corpse bride always stuck with me. The disturbing imagery of the spectral woman’s various states of decay remains effective, although their delivery (i.e., scare tactics) wasn’t so shocking in execution. You may be caught off guard, but nothing particularly terrifying graces the screen. The special effects are not frequent, but they are grotesque and gooey with putrefied flesh, and well-dispersed throughout the film. These visually were striking and memorable.

The pace is rather slow in terms of horror, but not in terms of drama or intrigue; the story is actually quite rich. Director John Irvin (Hamburger Hill, Raw Deal) has only this one significant contribution to horror, which I liken to such memorable thriller/horror genre-benders as The Changeling (1980) and Crimson Peak (2015). I find this to be a great horror choice for a Sunday afternoon. Just not a great horror movie for anyone looking for atmospheric dread or popcorn scares.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. John F permalink
    February 21, 2019 6:41 am

    The Peter Straub novel is a good read.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      February 21, 2019 9:57 am

      I’d like Mike Flanagan to give it the Haunting of Hill House netflix series treatment.

    • David Dabrowski permalink
      February 28, 2019 10:29 am

      I was just going to leave pretty much the same comment. It stuck with me more than any horror book I’ve ever read.

      • John Leavengood permalink
        February 28, 2019 10:41 am

        People have been telling me this here, on Twitter and on FB. Apparently I really need to read this!

      • David Dabrowski permalink
        February 28, 2019 10:55 am

        But now you’ll hate it since your expectations will be too high.

      • John Leavengood permalink
        February 28, 2019 11:44 am

        A have read zero fiction in years. So if it’s even half decent, I imagine I’d enjoy it.

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