• Ghost Story (Nucleus Films) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Nucleus Films
    Released on: October 29th, 2019.
    Director: Stephen Weeks
    Cast: Larry Dann, Murray Melvin, Vivian Mackerall, Penelope Keith, Leigh Lawson, Anthony Bate, Marianne Faithfull, Barbara Shelley
    Year: 1974
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    Ghost Story – Movie Review:

    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), meet at a train station. They travel together to the countryside where they get off the train in a small English village. Here they a third former schoolmate, McFayden (Murray Melvin, instantly recognizable from his turn in Ken Russuell’s The Devils), who is having them to his father’s country home for a weekend of hunting and relaxing. The home is uninhabited and they’ll have the massive estate and surrounding grounds all to themselves.

    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 it isn’t long before 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. It’s here that he learns firsthand what happened to some of McFayden’s relatives, specifically a woman named Sophy (Marianne Faithful), who was sent to an asylum under some rather clandestine circumstances after being involved in an incestuous relationship with her brother.

    While Ghost Story does take its time with its pacing, it’s for good reason. 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. Talbot means well and is nice enough, but a little on the dopey side and maybe a little too easy to manipulate. He doesn’t come from the same sort of old money as the other two, and is looked down upon for that reason. McFayden is a nice enough guy, on the surface, but is dishonest with his intentions. Duller, on the other hand, is just a plain bastard, a surly and stuck up man without a kind word for anyone else. As the back story unfolds and Talbot becomes drawn in deeper and deeper to the setting’s past, 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 looking. Additionally, 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 supporting work 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.

    Ghost Story – Blu-ray Review:

    Ghost Story arrives on region free Blu-ray in an AVC encoded high definition transfer framed at 1.78.1 widescreen on a 50GB disc with the feature given 22.2GBs of space, it’s unclear what elements were used for the transfer, “original film elements” are stated which means it was likely not the original 35mm negative (and to be fair, I have no idea what elements are even available here in the first place). There’s a bit of print damage noticeable here, mostly in the first few minutes of the movie, but colors generally look well-reproduced, only occasionally showing a slight bit of fading. Compression artifacts pop up in a few times but aren’t a constant, thankfully. There aren’t any problems with any noticeable edge enhancement to point out, and if any DNR has been applied here it’s pretty faint. Detail can fluctuate a bit from one scene to the next, looking more to do with the original photography than the transfer itself, but by and large it’s pretty solid if rarely reference quality, and there’s some good depth to the image as well.

    The only audio option on the disc is a 24-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono track. Optional subtitles are offered in English only. No problems here, the audio sounds quite good. The track is nicely balanced and the unusual soundtrack sounds quite strong. Dialogue is always easy to understand and follow and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note.

    Most of the extras, which are extensive, are carried over from Nucleus’ previous 2-disc special edition DVD release, starting with 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.

    Up next is the excellent seventy-two minute documentary, Ghost Stories. Featuring interviews with Weeks, Larry Dann, Murray Melvin, Barbara Shelly, 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 disc is a collection of Weeks’ early short films and commercial films, now remastered in high definition for the first time. These three commercial films are new to this release:

    The Bengal Lancers (34:02) – This is the surviving footage, taken from a VHS tape, from a film Weeks started shooting in India in 1984 with Christopher Lee, Michael York, Miles O’Keefe, Trevor Howard, Ronald Lacey, Nana Petekar and Emma Sutton. Two weeks into it, the film fell victim to an attempted insurance fraud scheme! The original negative was illegally destroyed but at least this tape has audio. It’s hard to really review an unfinished film but it’s interesting to see the different actors appear here, Lee in particular, and it seems like this had really nice production values and some impressive location photography. The last four-minutes actually does use some recently discovered film-sourced snippets, over which Weeks speaks about how he wound up working on the production, details the insurance fraud that wound up killing it, and how all of this played out. An vintage audio announcement regarding the production follows. Fascinating stuff.

    Gawain And The Green Knight (8:22) – This is a collection of test footage shot for what would become a feature film in 1973 starring Murray Head, Ciaran Madden and Nigel Green. It’s fairly abstract stuff, taking place pretty mostly inside a dimly lit church and without much in the way of dialogue, but quite interesting to see.

    B&W Commercial Reel (7:49) – This is simply a collection of old television commercials that Weeks made, they’re presented here in black and white and include spots for JWT, Kodak, Kia-Ora orange drink, Suncrush orange drink, Mace supermarkets, Andrex toilet paper, Horlicks malted milk and chocolate products and Radiant detergent.

    Carried over from the DVD is the Chelsea Cobbler (00:47) – a funny mod-style commercial for a shoe store in London.

    And the short films, carried over from the DVD, are:

    Owen's War (4:58, 1965) – a quick, experimental black and white short that serves as a sort of precursor to 1917 in that it deals with World War I.

    The Camp (4:36, 1965) – an almost surrealist piece mixing up war time imagery, train station footage and shots of a lone wanderer.

    Deserted Station (5:44) – an interesting short that explores a deserted train station by way of a visit from a surprised family.

    Moods Of A Victorian church (9:58, 1967) – 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.

    Flesh (2:48, 1967) –a strange short that compares ogling women to something akin to eyeing raw meat.

    Two At Thursday (10:42, 1968) – a brief account of an unusual romance that features some great footage of the London of the era in which it was shot.

    1917 (34:12) – a short film about World War One originally made for Tigon Films that mixes odd comedy with stark, disturbing visuals.

    Rounding out the extras are some alternate Ghost Story Credits (taken from the US home video release on VHS under the alternate title Madhouse Mansion), a lengthy five-minute theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Not carried over from the DVD are the PDF materials and insert booklet.

    Ghost Story – The Final Word:

    An interesting film gets a strong Blu-ray release thanks to the wealth of extras that Nucleus has conjured up for this disc. The picture itself, an undeservedly obscure picture in many ways, 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. Add to this some great short and commercial film material and a few other bits and pieces and this turns out to be quite a comprehensive release!

    Click on the images below for full sized Ghost Story Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Paul L's Avatar
      Paul L -
      Nice review, Ian. I've long been a fan of this film since I watched it on UK TV in the 1980s. The Nucleus DVD and, more recently, Blu-ray releases are a treat - as the film languished for many years out of reach, without distribution. (The only legit VHS release was the US tape from 1981, under the title MADHOUSE MANSION. This has been reissued by various companies over the years, I believe, but none of those later videocassette releases were anything more than bootlegs.)

      It's funny, but by a feat of synchronicity, last week I was also working on an article about Stephen Weeks' GHOST STORY for fledgling UK publication Horrified Magazine - not a review but rather a feature retrospective/analysis. The article has just this morning been posted on their website: