(You can also watch my video review of the film.)
There are moments which can change a person's life. This isn't a favorite film, nor is it so bad as to be worthy of snide, abusive mockery. But it is a film which stands out in my filmgoing experience by virtue of the fact that when I first saw it, at the too-young age of eleven, it scared the living hell out of me. The living Hell.
When I say I saw it, I of course mean that I saw the first twenty or so minutes of it, after which I could take no more and had to depart. The ghost of this particular story particularly enjoyed sneaking up on her victims and surprising them with her "I'm a slowly disintegrating corpse" face, and with what were clearly too many remaining victims still waiting for their turn, I opted for the better part of valor and ran like a frightened little kid rather than see it happen even one more time. Hours later, I was still loath to be left alone in a room, and was none too happy with the fact that, as we were on vacation in a house with too few guest beds, I had to sleep on the floor that night. There was no way to safely keep watch on the underside of the bed without leaving my back turned to the indescribably hideous things that were surely creeping from beneath the dresser. Because of this, I retained a pervasive terror of skeletons and images of dead bodies that persisted until I finally saw Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness, which effectively rewrote my paradigm to the more agreeable "dead people are stupid" viewpoint.
Of course, I felt like a snivelling coward, and in the bright light of day, I periodically told myself that at some point I'd sit through the whole film and face it down. At night, naturally, this inclination fell sharply away as I lay in bed simultaneously trying to and trying not to picture the ghost's face, (which my mind had all but blotted out) in that stupid masochistic way that people try to scare themselves so they can lie there in the dark feeling awful for no good reason. If there were a Hell, and we knew how to find it, there would be people running up to the gates to bang on them and yell, "I ain't scared of you!" before running away again. So it transpired that when I was twenty-eight, I happened to catch the film on cable one night, and resolved to sit through it at last.
Seventeen years changes the way you see things. This time, I was not so concentrated on the hideous appearance of the ghost as I was on how especially bad the subsequent bluescreen shot was. I'd never seen the bad bluescreen shot before, because I'd still been hiding my peepers the first time. By the end, I was convinced of two things: that I was no longer as easily scared, but that I'd been perfectly justified, and perhaps even wise, to have bailed when I did on the previous viewing, because it did in fact get worse. It also had a fair amount of sex and nudity, which would've embarrassed the crap out of me to see with my mom sitting right beside me.
The Peter Straub novel on which the film is rather loosely based is quite a great deal more imaginative than the film, which took the most basic portions of the premise only. Five (or four) elderly men who regularly meet and tell horror stories have a fifty-year-old secret to hide, which starts coming back into their lives and picking them off. The nephew (or son) of one of them comes to town after also being targeted by a mysterious force, which claims his brother's life instead. And beyond the names, that's about as similar as the stories get. The "ghost" of the book isn't merely seeking revenge for being wronged in her past, but is rather a completely inhuman entity which had malicious intent from the start, and only gives the group of old men (dubbed the "Chowder Society") special attention for having waylaid her plans the first time out. Her two supernatural adepts, Gregory and Fenny Bate, have such small roles in the film that it would almost have made more sense to leave them out completely, as it did the Dedham sisters (who, rather tellingly, are still listed in the end credits; one suspects some last-minute chopping occurred here.) And never in the book is the ghost said to have suddenly put on the visage of a rotting corpse in order to scare its victims, even though this appears to be its sole ability in the film.
It's next to pointless to argue whether or not something is scary. "Scary" is a totally subjective attribute, which is why it's of no use to argue that snakes aren't scary to anyone possessed of acute snakeophobia*. I will say that the images of the ghost's dead countenance are rather shockingly gruesome, probably the most revolting examples of such that I've ever seen, minus the probably part. I suppose that's an accomplishment of sorts, but it isn't terribly imaginative in the end. In some ways, it points to the limitations of film, and its overall remoteness. In real life, seeing a person change into another completely normal-looking person would still be terrifying, because it would completely rail against our sense of logic. It would signify that we were in the presence of something that wasn't human. But seeing this in a film isn't at all frightening; in fact, it's almost commonplace. Consequently, films have to work harder to produce scares, and this one went for the visceral shock approach. Unfortunately, this runs rather against the grain of the stylish psychological approach the film is obviously shooting for. Young Don Wanderley's flashback story of meeting the ghost under the name of Alma Mobley is the most effective part of the film, as it plays upon the audience's foreknowledge of the ghost's true face, building suspense and dread instead of going straight for the "Booga!" moments, which is especially effective in the "Alma sinks into the bathtub" scene. But afterwards, it's back to the old "Yuckers! I'm dead!" trick again, even when the intended victim has nowhere to conveniently leap to his death.
It's the ending that really derails the film, by virtue of its making no real sense. It is completely dissimilar to the ending of the book, but more importantly, it seems to have no real logic in the context of the film version, either. Kubrick's The Shining, while not without its flaws, is still an excellent horror flick that bears only a superficial similarity to its source material. Ghost Story director John Irvin doesn't manage to capture that balance between the original story and the constraints of the medium of film, and the movie feels too much like a lost opportunity. I'm glad I saw it in full at last, if only to vindicate myself, but I must admit I'm not terrifically keen on seeing it again; the latent creeptitude still lingers in me, even after all these years. Were it a better film, it might be worth the effort, but beyond that, there's only so many times we need to prove certain things to ourselves.
P.S. As an interesting aside, one of the characters in the book mentions how Fred Astaire, in his suit and tie, looked rather like the members of the Chowder Society. Fred Astaire did in fact end up playing one of them, in his final screen appearance.
-review by Matt Murray
*This is the actual term for fear of snakes, and any headshrinker who tells you otherwise is nothing but a two-bit charlatan who just wants your money.