Sunday, 6 December 2015

Blu-ray Review: Ghost Story (Second Sight)

Peter Straub's "Ghost Story" novel came out in 1979 and, for me, remains one of the finest tales of the supernatural ever written. Straub's book, rich in characterisation and unearthly chills, centres on a group, of old men who meet up under the banner of 'The Chowder Society' and take it in turns to tell ghost stories.
It's an enthralling read, and presented a considerable challenge with regard to making a successful translation to a feature film.
Director John Irvin took on that challenge, employing a wholly distinguished cast; a legendary director of photography; top-notch makeup and fx men and Lawrence D. Cohen whose script was a significant task in itself.

In the film, Fred Astaire takes the role of lawyer Ricky Hawthorne; Melvyn Douglas plays Dr. John Jaffrey, and Dogulas Fairbanks jr and John Houseman were cast as Edward Wanderley and Sears James; the latter being Ricky's business partner.
This quartet of old men gather at Sears' house and, armed with brandy and cigars, talk of things that no mortal man should hear, let alone experience.
It's a perfect setting for the cold winter that the town of Milburn is experiencing, with tales delivered by solemn voices for an ever fearful audience.
The men have all been suffering from nightmares, which link to a fateful event some 50 years earlier concerning a woman whose influence has grown stronger down the years. Alma Mobley/Eva Galli - brilliantly portrayed by Alice Krige -
was a shape-shifter in Straub's novel. Here, she's still the ultimate femme fatale, returning to exact the ultimate revenge for meeting a watery grave and serves as a major part of the film's theme of men's fear of women.
Milly (Jacqueline Brookes), Jaffrey's housekeeper, and Stella (Patricia Neal), Ricky's wife, are strong characters here, and Craig Wasson takes the roles of the Wanderley twins who fell under Mobley's spell. Amongst the absentees from the film version are the characters of Lewis Benedict and Peter Barnes, while Fenny and Gregory Bate are thrown into the mix in such a fashion that one may be forced to conclude they should have stayed on the printed page.

To get the most from this film, one must attempt to separate it from the book: not an easy job but one that pays dividends. Hardened Straub supporters will inevitably point to aspects of the production that aren't to their liking, but there's also much to enthuse over.
The town of Milburn is a winning celluloid creation, switching between postcard-like snow-scapes - you'll actually feel the biting cold - and driving rain with the wintry elements a part of the 'fine weather' we demand for such fare.
Jack Cardiff's magisterial photography beautifully reproduces the books' essence, while Dick Smith's makeup and Albert Whitlock's matte magic are indeed the stuff of nightmares and great beauty.
The performances are mostly excellent, too, with the four-man Chowder Society sensitively portrayed by a quartet of actors who would all be making their final film here. Patricia Neal - who would go on to make one more film after this- joins this treasure trove of ability and experience to emerge as a character who deserved more screen time but who made the best of what she was given.The real revelation here has to be Alice Krige, who is positively chilling to watch. Dick Smith certainly created some grisly makeup to transform her visage into pure evil, but she's at her most unnerving in her natural state, with looks, expressions and gestures that make it all too easy to believe she's not of this world.

Until Second Sight's Blu-ray came along, it had been many years since I'd viewed Irvin's film. At the time, I'd just re-read the novel and didn't much care for the filmed version. Now, with age, I still regret some of its shortcomings, but better appreciate its accomplishments. The things it does so very well. The time has come to tell the tale to a new generation, and perhaps to enhance its reputation amongst older viewers.

Second Sight's Blu-ray presentation is satisfying on practically all levels. An excellent encode, vivid detail, strong flesh tones and a fine showcase for Jack Cardiff's talents: his lighting of Alice Krige added so much to proceedings.
The supplementary material begins with a John Irvin commentary track.
John talks about his debut feature "Dogs Of War" and goes on to explain that "Ghost Story" was his second feature and one where he aimed for a European feel. He talks about the challenges of working with ageing cast members: Douglas, wo died four months after filming, worked in extreme pain, while Pat Neal was recovering from a stroke.
He also holds forth on Alice Krige, who impressed him with her "spiritual qualities"; reveals why Phillippe Sarde was an unpopular choice as composer with studio execs; is honest enough to admit that some scenes in the film could have been done better and recalls how Craig Wasson lost his character in a particular scene. This was John's first viewing of his film in almost three decades, and he clearly enjoys recalling a happy experience, even finding time to recall his own brush with the supernatural.

Ghost Story Genesis With Peter Straub (39m 42s)
An absorbing interview with the author who talks about the creative process and how he gains inspiration for his work.
He remembers how "Ghost Story" changed his life, in between reading extracts from his book.
"Koko", "Shadowlands" and "Floating Dragon" are also discussed, along with the music of Dave Brubeck, and Jack Cardiff also receives praise.

Alice Krige: Being Alma Mobley and Eva Galli (28m 52s)
An absolute delight as Alice explains why she decided to go into acting; her take on the Mobley/Galli character; the joy of working with such a generous cast and her thoughts on her nude scenes. She also records her pleasure concerning the re-issue of this film, remarking that it's "wonderful a film with merit is not lost."

Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and Producer Burt Weissbourd (29m 29s)
Burt explains how he got into working with writers and why he elected to turn his back on producing.
Lawrence talks about his "Carrie" screenplay; discusses the tough decisions that had to be made with regard to revising his screenplay (the film was edging towards a 3 or 4 hour number)and recalls his relationships with directors.

The Visual Effects Of Albert Whitlock: a Discussion With Matte Photographer Bill Taylor (28m 51s)
Bill relates how he and Albert first met; talks about the matte printing process and refers to Albert as a "fountain of ingenuity."
He also touches on that wonderful shot of Alice Krige in front of a speeding car and explains how it was engineered.
A 31s TV spot and a 1m radio spot are followed by a moving photo gallery running for 8m 43s, which includes theatrical posters and colour and monochrome stills.
The package is rounded off by a 2m 6s trailer which does a fine job of selling the film.

Second Sight's Blu-ray and DVD are released in the UK on 7th December. The Blu is already one of my favourite releases of 2015. If you've seen this film before, this is an excellent vehicle to increase appreciation. If you haven't, I'd say you're in for quite a ride!

I have a copy of the Blu-ray up for grabs. Still a few more days to run so check out this competition to be found elsewhere on this blog. Terms and conditions state UK entrants only.

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