Two weeks ago, I proposed that, if remakes were inevitable, the subjects of said remakes might as well be worthy of that treatment. In other words, if the original is mediocre or worse to start with, no harm done. And maybe we’ll finally wind up with a good film. Granted, experience hasn’t given us much cause for optimism in this department, but hope springs eternal, even in the face of terrible odds, otherwise the human race would have committed collective suicide long ago.
Today’s proposal, then, concerns, Ghost Story. The 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1979 novel is, not to put too fine a point on it, an abomination. I heaped a great deal of scorn on The Sentinel’s head, and purely at the level of filmmaking, it is the more egregious offender of the two here. But as an adaptation, and as an exercise in missed potential, Ghost Story is the greater sinner. Both films squander impressive casts. But whereas The Sentinel lumped in seasoned trash performers with people who must have wandered onto the wrong set, Ghost Story gathers together legends of cinema (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Patricia Neal) to no good purpose. It what would prove to be a career-defining role, Alice Krige plays the menace. In the decades that would follow, she would turn in more than her share of horror femme fatales (Silent Hill being one of the most recent examples). And whatever else one might say about it (which is quite a bit), The Sentinel is at least reasonably faithful to its source material. This is, of course, one of its problems – a classic case of Garbage In, Garbage Out. But Ghost Story is guilty of something far worse.
Straub’s novel is one of the masterpieces of horror literature. A defining work of that golden era that also saw the emergence of Stephen King, Ghost Story takes on the profoundly ambitious task of quite literally being THE ghost story: not only does it invoke (and rework) the classics of the form (most importantly Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw), it presents, in its monster, the being that is at the root of all ghost stories. Straub’s execution is masterful, and the book is a yardstick against which all subsequent supernatural fiction must be measured. It’s also goddamn terrifying.
The movie, on the other hand, has a couple of effective, but utterly cheap, shock moments, but not only skips all of the book’s most frightening set pieces, it reduces its menace to an ordinary vengeful ghost. Pathetic. Every so often, in a spirit of idiotic optimism, I take another look at the film to see if perhaps I was mistaken when I walked out of the theatre so bitterly disappointed in 1981. After all, I was initially just as disappointed with The Shining, and that is a film that, with the passage of time, has looked better and better, and that I now rank among the very best of King adaptations (the author’s opinion notwithstanding). But no. Ghost Story just looks more tragic with every passing year.
So there’s a remake I would welcome, if it could come close to capturing the epic, spectacular horror of the novel. Guillermo Del Toro, are you listening?