• Ghost Story



    Released by: Nucleus Films
    Released on: November 16, 2009.
    Director: Stephen Weeks
    Cast: Larry Dann, Murray Melvin, Vivian Mackerall, Penelope Keith, Leigh Lawson, Anthony Bate, Marianne Faithfull, Barbara Shelley
    Year: 1974

    The Movie:

    Set in an undetermined time period somewhere in the 1920s or 1930s, Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story begins when two former collage acquaintances, the quiet and practical Talbot (Larry Dann) and the somewhat brash and snooty Duller (Vivian Mackerall) get off the train in a small English village to meet a third former schoolmate, McFayden (Murray Melvin), who is having them to his father’s country home for a weekend of hunting and relaxing.

    They drive through the hills to the posh estate, now in a state of slight disarray having been empty for some time, and as they settle in for their vacation Talbot starts to see things that the others do not. Unsure that his eyes or his companions are not playing tricks on him, he starts to wonder if he wasn’t invited to be the butt of some sort of strange joke – after all, he wasn’t close with either man while in school with them – but McFayden assures him that this is not the case. When a strange antique doll starts following him around, he’s soon pulled into the house’s unusual past as he learns firsthand what happened to some of McFayden’s relatives, specifically a woman named Sophie (Marianne Faithful), who was sent to an asylum under some rather clandestine circumstances.

    While Ghost Story does take its time, it’s for good reasons – the plot builds quite nicely and there’s enough quirky character bits that each of the three principal players are well defined as three very different people. As the back story unfolds and Talbot becomes drawn in deeper and deeper, the film’s pace picks up accordingly. The use of the Victorian era porcelain doll is an effectively eerie touch while the scenes that take place inside the asylum have an appropriately seedy and unhealthy feel to them that works well in the context of the story.

    Shot almost entirely in India (only the opening train scene and a few pick up shots were filmed in England), doubling effectively for the England of the past, Ghost Story has a surprisingly authentic look and tone. The costumes are all very detailed and realistic while the locations are absolutely perfect not only because they look like old England, but also because they’re fairly creepy in their own right just in how they look. Shadows and light can play tricks on you in fancy old houses, and this is a film that rightfully exploits that.

    While the pacing may be on the slow side, the film is certainly not short on atmosphere. Aside from the locations, the cinematography and lighting ensure that we see just enough of what we need to in order to get our skin crawling. While some of the effects used for the doll look a bit dated, other bizarre tweaks such as the soundtrack’s tendency to rely on heaving looping or a scene where Talbot ‘walks’ out of the house lead by a certain someone definitely keep the mood spooky and weird. Couple this with Marianne Faithful’s drugged out zombie-like performance, a nice supportings role from one time Hammer starlet Barbara Shelley and stoic looking Anthony Bate and some great work from the three male leads and you’ve got an odd movie that comes together quite well if you’re willing to stick it through to the end. Don’t be put off by the lumbering pacing of the first half, as this is a film that gets its story across not with flashy effects or overcooked editing but solid acting, subtle frights and gobs of atmosphere.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen print looks to present the film in its original aspect ratio and has been flagged for progressive scan playback. Detail wavers a bit and some light to moderate grain and occasional instances of minor print damage appear frequently, but the image is strong and stable enough. There aren’t any but the most minor of compression artifacts noticeable and some color fading is obvious, but this is generally a stable presentation of some less than perfect source material.

    The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix is fine. Levels are well balanced and dialogue is easy to follow, though the absence of subtitles might irk some. Don Geeson’s unnerving score sounds quite good here and while some scenes might be a tad on the flat side, there’s little to complain about otherwise. For an older low budget picture, Ghost Story sounds pretty good.

    Most of the extras are contained on the second disc in this set but aside from a trailer and some nice menu screen, the first disc does house a commentary track courtesy of director/co-writer Stephen Weeks moderated by Professor Samuel Umland who does little more than ask Weeks questions here and there. Weeks is more than happy to go into all sorts of detail about what was shot in England versus what was shot in India, how they came across the various locations used in the movie, how they found the doll that is so important to the story and what it was like working with the various cast and crew members. It’s a strong track that does a fine job of detailing the film’s history.

    The second disc starts off with the excellent seventy-two minute documentary, Ghost Stories, produced exclusively for this DVD. Featuring interviews with Weeks, Larry Dann, Murray Melvin, Barbara Shelly, on Geeson and UK genre expert Kim Newman, this is fascinating stuff. The cast and crew recount their travels to India, working with a drug addled Marianne Faithful and all the oddities that entailed, and working alongside the late Vivian Mackerall who Weeks notes was the inspiration for Withnail in the film Withnail And I. Geeson goes into some detail about the score he created for the film and how he used multiple tape recorders and loops to get the right atmosphere while Shelly discusses her appreciation for the horror fans that have aided her longevity. Both Dann and Melvin come across as quite kind and more than happy to talk about the film, with Melvin going into a surprising amount of detail about the stomach problems he developed while shooting in India and about how he almost wrecked the antique car hired for the film. Weeks also makes some interesting comments about his films, and how this picture in particular was released on VHS only in the US and under the absurd alternate title of Madhouse Mansion – something he was none too happy about. This is a great documentary that really explains where Weeks was at during this time in his career, how he got the various parties on board, production difficulties and budgetary problems, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary but it’s really well done and absolutely worth watching if only for the story that Shelly recounts about the group of hippies used to play the inmates of the asylum.

    Also included on the second disc is a collection of Weeks’ early Short Films:

    Owen's War (4:44) – a quick, experimental black and white short that serves as a sort of precursor to 1917 in that it deals with World War I.
    Deserted Station (5:27) – an interesting short that explores a deserted train station by way of a visit from a surprised family.
    The Camp (4:22) – an almost surrealist piece mixing up war time imagery, train station footage and shots of a lone wanderer.
    Moods Of A Victorian church (9:18) – a very atmospheric horror short that has much in common with the feature attraction on the first disc in terms of both visuals and pacing.
    Two At Thursday (10:12) – a brief account of an unusual romance that features some great footage of the London of the era in which it was shot.
    1917 (32:47) – a short film about World War One originally made for Tigon Films that mixes off comedy with stark, disturbing visuals.
    Flesh (2:31) –a strange short that compares ogling women to something akin to eyeing raw meat.
    The Chelsea Cobbler (00:42) – a funny mod-style commercial for a shoe store in London.

    Rounding out the extras are some Alternate Ghost Story Credits (1:52, taken from the US home video release on VHS under the alternate title Madhouse Mansion), trailers for a few other unrelated Nucleus Films DVD releases and, in PDF format, a reproduction of the film’s original press book and a bit about the making of the film, both accessible via DVD-Rom drive. Inside the keepcase is a nice, full color booklet containing an essay on the film by Darius Drewe Shimon and some notes on the short films by Stephen Weeks himself.

    The Final Word:

    An interesting film gets a fascinating DVD release thanks to the wealth of extras that Nucleus have conjured up for this two disc set. The picture itself, an obscure offering to say the least, is well made and quite entertaining while the commentary and accompanying documentary leave no stone unturned in regards to the film’s history and appeal.
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Paul L's Avatar
      Paul L -
      I saw this on late-night telly during the 1980s, and it haunted me for years: I don't think it was repeated since that airing, and was long unavailable on home video. I finally managed to rewatch it again via the Nucleus DVD and found that whilst it looked a lot more cheaply-shot than I remembered it to be, it's still incredible unsettling. The film's got a strange, poetic and unnerving quality: the performances are all a little off-centre, and the locations give the film a huge boost (imo, of course). It's a lovely, haunting little film.