“Ghost Story” dabbles in the world of nightmares, as the community elders of Milburn, Vermont find themselves stalked by devastating imagery. Lawyer Sears James (John Houseman), retired physician Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), businessman Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), and mayor of Milburn Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) are all afflicted by these incessant nightmares, as the lifelong friends are forced to reckon with the sins of their past. As a means to distract themselves from the real-life horror plaguing their every move, the four men, known as “The Chowder Society,” tell ghost stories around a fire, hoping to keep the ghosts of their youth at bay. It’s a cute attempt, but any good horror fan knows that these men can’t stave off their reckoning for much longer.
Straub’s novel is a staggering 483 pages, which Universal required be transformed into a film with a less than two-hour runtime. Somehow, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (“Carrie”) was able to pull it off, as did director John Irvin (“Raw Deal,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). According to an interview Cohen provided on the Scream Factory release of “Ghost Story,” this, unfortunately, meant that a lot of Straub’s brilliant story was sacrificed for the required runtime. Cohen still believes “Ghost Story” would have been better suited as a miniseries.
The fact that “Ghost Story” is still an unsettling, powerful addition to the haunting subgenre despite so much of Straub’s work left out of the final script is a testament to his talent.