Monday, July 14, 2008

Ghost Story: A Haunting Failure

I haven't had time to check the library yet, but somewhere out there is an essay titled "How the '80s Almost Killed the Period Film". Someday I hope to explore this premise further -- how decades' worth of best filmmaking practices were suddenly forgotten. How lighting became a lost art and anything old or eerie had to be so blown out and diffused as to be nearly invisible. Well, in the case of Ghost Story (1981), it looked like the horror genre was also set to take a hit during that decade. Thankfully, it suffered only a temporary set back that year.

Ghost Story is one of those theatrical releases that gives the impression it was made for television. Was the cast displayed in little photo boxes across the bottom of the one-sheet, like an Irwin Allen film? I don't think so, but it should have been. It's taken me 27 years to get up the steam to watch this movie. A tender youth at its release, I knew three of the cast (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Fred Astaire, Melvin Douglas, John Houseman) from their black & white glory days. Seeing them old was wholly unappealing to me as a kid. Minus glamor and dash, their personas were replaced by generic wrinkled age. It cemented the sense I'd grown up with that all the best times and people had passed their prime long before my birth. Depressing. So it was only this week, while trapped in the house on a rainy day when I should have been doing many other things, that I found the movie On Demand and decided it was time.

Now, as per the premise of this blog, I love schlock. I celebrate the so-bad-it's-good. But this movie was awful. I might even call it the unscariest AND unfunniest unscary film ever made, with weak performances from what were once the pride of Hollywood and even worse acting from their young and then-unknown counterparts. Unexplained characters appear and disappear. It is so dull as to be nearly unwatchable. So lacking in tension that I almost forgot it was on. Heck, I almost forgot what I'm writing about! And did I mention those period sequences?

Clearly, the story itself holds promise, which is what makes its execution all the sadder. One hopes that Peter Straub's novel is better. Alice Krige's performance is not so bad as the undead and unforgiving love interest. But the rest of the cast...? Through '70s television I'd grown accustomed to the abuse of fine, aging stars. Love American Style, The Love Boat...need I say more? But the phenomenon is especially hard to take in Ghost Story. Surely these former idols did not want to be remembered en masse in this mess! And Patricia Neal fares no better. Do I sound disappointed? Bitter? I guess I am. After so many years, I held out hope the film would be better than I imagined, a hidden gem, a pleasant surprise. But no. Some mysteries are better left unsolved. And unfortunately, it was the last film appearance for Astaire and Fairbanks. Douglas died later that year, after having finished The Hot Touch.

I did learn something unexpected through this viewing: I'm no less squeamish about seeing the once vital heroes of Hollywood's golden age fade and dessicate than I was as a kid. It's hard to have such a vivid reminder of what will happen to all of us. So I guess there is something scary about Ghost Story after all.

No comments: