You’re trolling for good scary movies you should watch for your blog-thing. Looking for recommendations wherever you can find them. Who steps up? Your mother, surprisingly, rather eagerly hands over a list of suggestions. She tells you that, if you really are planning on watching horror movies all month (she has a hard time believing it since she was the one who had to comfort you that time that “Final Destination 2” traumatized you for months and made you afraid of – of all things – log trucks), there is this great scary movie from 1980 starring, of all people, Fred Astaire…
Yes, this guy…
Astaire. America’s cuddliest dancing fool. Big ears, ever-present smile, legs like turbines. Really?!? But your mother swears by it.
Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that your mother might be exaggerating a little bit. She might even be trying to protect you in her own motherly way. “Oh no honey, don’t watch ‘The Exorcist,’ this Fred Astaire movie’s wayyyy scarier!” Sure… Thanks Mom.
You would be forgiven, ultimately, for assuming, perhaps, that this is the dignified, G-rated tale of a benevolent grandpa ghost with a mean waltz and tap in his repertoire; trouble is, he just can’t find his way into the light. Awww. A feel good movie, light on scares. (This is what I assumed. I think the way I would have described my perception of this movie before seeing it would have been… snuggly…)
You would be forgiven for believing these things – in fact they’re rather sensible deductions, you clever boy (or girl) – but you would also be really, really wrong.
This is an unrelenting R-rated film with gruesome effects, nudity, sex (and lots of it), betrayal, and, yes, also Fred Astaire being cuddly and relatively benevolent, which is pretty much the only thing that gets him through this movie alive… and was pretty much the only thing that got me through this movie alive.
A Film About Memory Lost To Memory
There’s a reason you’ve never heard of “Ghost Story,” but it’s hard to put a finger on it. Keep in mind, this is probably one of the better-made horror films that time forgot. This is no trash-bin affair. It’s also not too stodgy – it manages to be deeply unsettling to this day. It frequently hits it’s sweet spot. It is based on a best-seller. This was a major prestige affair. It features the last performances of three Hollywood legends. It grossed an incredibly high amount. It was nominated for a Saturn Award for horror. And yet, no one talks about it today.
I’ve talked quite a bit about legacy in these posts – the films I have been watching are largely the film’s I have been watching because, over the years, through cultural acceptance, they have become the standard syllabus for anyone who is trying to get into horror films (except for Blacula probably). Many films that were failures upon release – like “The Thing” – have become unimpeachable classics, the pillar on which this syllabus is built. Other, films, successes upon their release, have been essentially lost to time. I think my mother may be the only person I have ever met who would have recommended “Ghost Story” to me. I think if you were to ask 1,000 people to recommend 100 horror movies to you, 2 might list “Ghost Story.” And yet I’m kind of glad that my mother happened to be one of them, because I think it was a very enlightening experience to watch a rather good film that has, over time, gone the opposite way of “The Thing” – it has fallen out of the horror canon.
Why might this be? It is based on a book which is considered a modern horror classic. The film is pretty well cast, and, I can personally attest, very scary in spite of the fact that it has dated quite a bit. (I watched this one with the lights off – half the movie had me falling asleep, the other half of the movie had me checking behind my back for corpses hidden from my view by the darkness. In other words, when this film wants to scare, it can!)
There are two reasons I think this film has become lost to the back-alleys of our collective film memory. The first deals with this exact issue: memory. Most of the horror films that sit atop the horror canon, the films that horror fans put up in the gallery to show off when other people come over for dinner, were way ahead of their time. “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “The Thing” – these are all forward-looking affairs, even if they are set in the past.
“Ghost Story” is inherently the opposite. It says it in the title – this is about sitting down and remembering an old story we had all tried to forget. This film is all about foggy remembrances of times gone by. Compounding on this, “Ghost Story” has the strange misfortune of being one the only film’s I’ve ever seen – or know of, for that matter – to feature, as its protagonists, a group of septuagenarians. (I can think of two fairly recent films – Another Year and R.E.D. Neither are horror movies though.)
It’s a bold move in its own way – it’s nice to see a horror movies that isn’t about a bunch of promiscuous twenty-somethings for a change! But this movie is about a group of old guys with walkers who, as we find out once were a bunch of promiscuous twenty-somethings, which takes some of the novelty away. More then that, this movie is about the problems of 80 year-old fathers and their 40 year-old sons, which sounds like it should be timeless, but instead plays very much as a Greatest Generation vs. Baby Boomer, WWII vs. Vietnam thing in this film. So, what I’m saying is, it’s not very relevant today. This movie is the opposite forward-looking. It was stuck in reverse back in 1980. Today, it seems fair to call it a relic.
The other problem is that, while this story is scary in all the right places and mellow in all the right places, it gets all the right places all mixed up. It’s like trying to put a really great puzzle together after your five year-old cousin has torn it all apart and eaten three of the pieces. This is a story poorly told. It has all the right parts, but when you watch the movie you find yourself actively wondering why the director decided to put the parts together in this particular way. You wonder this because this particular way is disengaging and boring – it’s sending you all the wrong signals considering you’re supposed to have your heart in your throat.
Ghost story is essentially “I Know What You Did Last Century.” Four ambitious young men all play a part in accidentally killing a mysterious young woman they loved. Fifty year later, that woman is back and she is haunting the sons of their alpha male. One son falls for this woman but gets out of the relationship before things get really back. Another son is not so lucky. Once he is dead it is only so long before the spirit of this woman scorned begins tormenting the four old men who ended her life. And torment ensues.
This story makes perfect sense. Now take every sentence and completely rearrange it. The film starts with the second son’s death. Then torment. Then the first son tells of his relationship with the woman in a forty minute long flashback. Then the old men, in another flashback, reveal who this woman really is and how they helped to create her. I get that these are ghost stories but… why not tell this story linearly?
I know it builds suspense to hold out on the mystery of who this demonic spirit is… but the spirit herself is scary enough, and she is not scary because I don’t know how she died. The “ghost story” format of this movie does not build the suspense it thinks it’s building. It just ends up scattershot. And so it loses some of it’s appeal. A ghost story can be very scary, but if your friend keeps stopping and starting and going off on digressions that don’t make sense, it’s his fault that he’s ruining the story. The filmmakers ruin a fairly good ghost story in “Ghost Story.” It’s why time forgot it, but it’s nice to remember that a film like this one exists so we can learn from it… and enjoy it when the filmmakers let us.
- That being said, I was terrified through much of this movie, particularly a pretty strong stretch about halfway through. The effects are not masterful, but they do their job and, with the lights out in my room, I know I had to keep stopping the film to check if I was still alone. It was a fun feeling in its own strange way.
- Two things that kill me about this movie: The first is that the ghost explicitly says she needs the son to take her to his hometown. She can’t get there on her own. The first son does not take her. The second son, who totally would have taken her… she shoves him out a window! And then she shows up in town anyway! What the hell? The second thing hurt me even more. The lawyer character, as an old man, has an accent. A British accent. Fine. People in New England have British accents, I accept that. But… In the flashback, none of the young men have a British accent. What? It took me forever to figure out who was who. I mean there are logical reasons why a young American man would grow up to be an 80 year old man with an accent… but… the movie isn’t going there. This was just lazy casting!
- No black guys. Sigh.