Friday, October 12, 2012

Dance with Me, You Little Toad

Rick Baker's Amazing Makeups for Ghost Story
Author Peter Straub's 1979 novel "Ghost Story" is one of (if not the) most frightening ghost stories of the 20th Century. Richly layered and deeply disturbing, its main plot centers around four older gentlemen who call themselves the "Chowder Society." They meet once a month in their small New York town of Milburn to share ghost stories with one another. A fifth member has passed away a year before the story starts, found upstairs at a party celebrating a noted young actress named Eva Galli, with a look of horror on his face.

When one of them calls in in his nephew, a noted occult novelist, the story deepens and we learn that the five men all had had a dalliance with a beautiful young woman named Alma Mobley in 1929. It ended badly and Alma died, drowned in the local lake. Meanwhile, a mysterious ne'er do well and his young brother (the Bate brothers) show up in Milburn, resulting in a series of wolf-like attacks on local livestock. The full plot is far too complicated to cover here, but (SPOILER ALERTS) it seems that Eva and Alma are both incarnations of an ancient spirit which thrives on fear and the Bate brothers are its accomplices. The book blew my 19 year old mind and made me a fan of Straub's for life. His follow-ups, "Shadowland" a supernatural coming-of-age novel about the nephew of a true magician and "Floating Dragon," about a town plagued by a recurring cycle of evil, are among my all-time favorites. And his first collaboration with Stephen King, "The Talisman," is nothing short of amazing.

So you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that "Ghost Story" was going to be made into a feature film. Starring four old Hollywood masters (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman) as the members of the Chowder Society and directed by John Irvin (The Dogs of War and the original miniseries version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), 1981's Ghost Story should have been a no-brainer. Sadly, that's exactly what it was. Focusing solely on the Eva/Alma central plot and abandoning all of the layers that made the novel so fascinatingly frightening, the film lost all of the novel's gravitas and left audiences with a rather mundane ghost tale without any bite. While it did introduce American audiences to young, South African actress Alice Krige (who would go on to gain fame as the Borg Queen in the Star Trek: TNG series) and featured some spectacular effects from makeup genius Rick Baker, the film ultimately failed as a representation of Straub's novel. It also failed to connect with audiences, who stayed away in droves, after its opening weekend. In fact, the film I'm going to talk about next (released later the same year) advertised itself as "A Real Ghost Story" (bonus points if you already know what that movie is).

Much like Kubrick's venerated (and completely overrated) version of King's The Shining, fans of the novel hated this movie, though I do know a few folks who have never read "Ghost Story" who love Ghost Story. Go figure.

If you've never read Straub's novel (and you should), I suppose you might enjoy this watered-down version of a truly terrifying examination of supernatural evil. If you have read the book, then avoid this movie. You'll be sorely disappointed.

More, anon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved her since Sleepwalkers with the yummy Brian Kraus and in Dinotopia.