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Under the Radar: 'Ghost Story'

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May 05, 2011 | 6:10am EDT

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When I was a kid, my father used to quote a single line of movie dialogue, the source of which was unknown to me for years. Whenever two people on the television would be dancing, or the subject of dancing would be broached, he would spout, “Dance with me, you little toad!” When I was a bit older, I discovered this line belonged to an early '80s horror film called Ghost Story. Finding the film proved tricky. For many years, the DVD was out of print, and the only way to watch the film was an equally hard-to-obtain VHS. This week, much to my delight, the film found its way to Netflix Watch Instantly.

Ghost Story (1981) PosterGhost Story weaves the tale of the Chowder Society, a group of hopeless old men who while away their hours spinning ghostly yarns. They seem pretty innocuous and frightfully unworthy subjects for a horror film, but the thing that they share beyond a love of macabre tales threatens to destroy them as well as their families. After the eldest son of one of the men dies in a freak accident, the four charter members of the Chowder Society begin to have violent nightmares and are generally unhinged. The man’s other son decides to investigate the source of the nightmares and the shared secret these men have harbored for 50 years.

Ghost Story, in many ways, operates in a realm outside the conventions that drive the typical, modern horror film. Absent are the cadres of sin-seeking teenagers severed from adult supervision engaging in nefarious activities before being systematically butchered by a masked fiend. In its place is a cast that is made up almost entirely of great actors from the golden age enjoying their golden years: Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Already many of you are questioning why anyone under the age of 90 would suffer through this seemingly tedious flick.

The truth is that Ghost Story is a phenomenal slow-burn with moments that are legitimately unnerving -- moments that will, fittingly, haunt you. It is based on a novel by acclaimed mystery writer Peter Straub and was adapted for the screen by frequent Stephen King collaborator Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie, It, and The Tommyknockers). It’s a gothic mystery with a classic revenge-from-beyond-the-grave theme that drives the narrative. Since the film’s central apparition abides by no rules in terms of when she may appear, it lends lingering doubt as to whether each new character introduced resides among the living. This doubt creates a very palpable, but also very subtle, suspense to the proceedings. When the vengeful spirit catches up to those who wronged her, the makeup effects and musical cues that accompany her wrath make for champion nightmare fodder.

Ghost Story (1981)What’s really fascinating about Ghost Story is its story structure. The movie features a sort of meta twist on the anthology horror film. In an anthology horror film, several segmented stories are draped upon a framing device that is then linked to each one either thematically or via some cursory similarity. But Ghost Story is about the art of storytelling itself. It is a film that challenges the reality/fantasy relationship of supernatural tales and suggests that real-life events can be every bit as frightening as any campfire story. The film plays with continuity in a way that nods toward anthology horror without necessarily fitting into its mold. In the middle of an already burgeoning ghost story, the young son tells his own tale that, while apparently separate, turns out to be inalienable from the otherworldly threat facing the Chowder Society. The film travels down another tangent to finally give the details of the Society’s secret, which then again harkens back to the film’s unifying antagonist. In other words, its compartmentalized tales are all actually one and the same.

Couple all this with one of the creepiest single shots in horrordom and cinematography as beautiful and elegant as the old New England houses that comprise most of the film’s sets, and you begin to understand what makes Ghost Story so unique. All the elements are allowed to shine brighter than ever before given that Netflix is streaming the film in HD, a format on which it does not exist anywhere else.

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