It's been at least fifteen years since I read Peter Straub's Ghost Story, and I must admit I've forgotten almost everything about the actual story. What I do remember is my conviction that Straub's novel was truly a masterpiece of the horror genre. Straub is a complete writer, not some penny dreadful hack, and that almost guarantees that no film can possibly do any of his writings justice. Movies revolve around characters and actions, and Straub's fiction really plays on a much higher level. Frankly, I'm surprised that anyone would even attempt to adapt Straub for the big screen. Robbed of its atmospheric build-up, Ghost Story (the film) proves quite incapable of immersing you in the dark shadows haunting the Chowder Club Society meetings. Unable to take on a life of its own onscreen, Ghost Story feels to me like an old made-for-TV movie.
The four elderly, distinguished gentlemen who make up the The Chowder Society have been trading ghost tales and scary stories for decades. For fifty years, however, not a one of them has ever even thought about mentioning the most disturbing story of all, one that they all secretly share. Eva was her name, a saucy little newcomer who had all four of their college-age hearts pitter-pattering as they stumbled over one another pitching woo in her general direction. It's weird enough for four best friends to all be wooing the same girl at the same time, but the director manages to make it even stranger and more confusing. Two of the guys constantly giggle like schoolgirls, none of them seem to have a clue about the essential nature of man-woman communications, and they all combine to make one of the film's most climactic scenes little more than pedestrian in terms of their emotional reactions.
As older gentlemen, the members of The Chowder Society are quite distinguished and refined. It's a solid core of aging actors: Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It's rather sad in a way, though, watching true Hollywood greats rapidly approaching the ends of their careers. Astaire's dancing days were long over by this point, but his often-overlooked acting ability is quite evident here - he, Houseman, and a young Alice Krige (Eva/Alma) basically carry the movie on their backs.
Ghost Story isn't a bad movie by any means; clearly, though, it falls far short of the mark set down in Straub's original novel. There's just an almost complete lack of atmosphere on display here, even during the most dramatic scenes. Moving at a preternaturally slow pace, the film will surely turn off a lot of younger fans expecting a lot of in-your-face action from start to finish. It's hard to assign much blame for the ordinariness of this movie, though, as it really comes down to the fact that Peter Straub's fiction just doesn't lend itself to theatrical adaptation.