Finally, the Daily Dead “Class Of” series has reached my beloved birth year, 1981. For the genre, 1981 signifies an important moment in the history of horror. With the introduction of two slasher icons, Michael Myers in 1978 and Jason Voorhees in 1980; the beginning of the sequel boom that would dominate the rest of the decade was born in 1981 with Halloween 2 and Friday the 13th Part 2. These two sequels are merely the introduction to the rise of slasher cinema for the 80s, with 1981 providing a variety of examples like The Burning, Graduation Day, The Prowler, Funhouse, Happy Birthday to Me, Final Exam, Night School, Student Bodies, and My Bloody Valentine.
1981 also proved the best year in the history of horror for werewolf movies. The iconic American Werewolf in London set the gold standard in practical transformation effects. The Howling is a demonstration of how horror and humor can coexist perfectly. Wolfen doesn’t have startling effects but it does have a unique mystery and an emphasis on Indigenous tales and legends of animal transformation. Full Moon High takes its werewolf roots to a high school setting with a pure teen comedy.
1981 also gave the world Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell with The Evil Dead, the transition of David Cronenberg to the 80s with Scanners, and the maestro’s masterpiece The Beyond. There is so much to love about 1981.
A lesser known, though completely memorable and visually stunning film from 1981, is the John Irvin-directed gothic tale of lust and revenge, Ghost Story. The film surrounds a group of old men who call themselves “The Chowder Society” and gather to tell scary stories, much like a Midnight Society for senior citizens but with a less cool name. These men discuss nightmares, their age, and the lingering feeling that death is near. They speak of sins, from their past, and are haunted by a woman dressed in black. When the son of one of the elderly men returns home after the mysterious death of his brother, the sins of the past begin to unravel.
Based on the best-selling novel by Peter Straub, whose story was considerably modified for this screen adaptation by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, this film begins as any great ghost story should. It’s a cloudy night, dimly lit by the glow of a full moon. The spooky, although picturesque, image is overtaken by liquid dripping down from the clouds and over the moon. Philippe Sarde composes one of the most beautiful, haunting, and, for this opening scene, gothic scores of the 1980s. As the orchestration builds, layering the opening moments with dread, four men sit in a wood-paneled study, illuminated by a fire, telling a scary tale. The moment establishes that beautiful Hammer horror aesthetic that the 1970s engrained in movie fans so clearly. Then, the film shifts to a Manhattan loft, the view of bathtub filling with water while a naked man fearfully approaches a naked woman in bed. In this modern moment, where the demonstration of straight forward sexuality, practical effects sensations, and the beginning phases of visual effects integration so evocatively describe the societal changes in the 1980s. For 1981, this moment speaks volumes to changing times that would come for the rest of the decade.
One of the most impressive elements of Ghost Story is the cast of classic film stars. Director John Irvin, after spending the 70s in television and coming off the Christopher Walken actioner The Dogs of War, found a blend of seasoned actors to play the scary story-sharing group of old men known as The Chowder Society. Look at this lineup: Melvyn Douglas, who genre fans will recognize from The Changeling, John Houseman who told another ghost story on the beach of Antonio Bay in The Fog, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose career in the 1930s and 1940s is nothing short of extraordinary with films like Little Caesar, The Fighting O’Flynn, and The Great Manhunt. And, in a subdued non-dancing and singing role, the legendary Fred Astaire in his final film role. These actors alone are reason to seek out Ghost Story.
Rounding out the acting team, playing the spectral woman in black, is Alice Krige who starred in Sleepwalkers and most recently played the witch in 2020’s Gretel and Hansel. And, the actor I always mix up with Bill Maher, Craig Wasson who started the 80s with Ghost Story and moved on to the Brian DePalma thriller Body Double and then Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. All these actors give committed
performances, which helps to stabilize the often-wobbly narrative that jumps from the present day to flashback scenes describing the encounters with the mysterious and beautiful Alma/Eva.
Ghost Story is also beautiful to watch. Behind the camera is another legend, the great Jack Cardiff who has been working since the 1930s and was also nominated for an Academy Award four times. Cardiff composes a color palette in Ghost Story with bold whites and deep greys and blues. Cardiff pulls tension with shifting angles on characters and also uses slow movements that build dread during scarier moments. The composition of Ghost Story changes as the film moves from present to past, from tale to tale being told by the characters.
And finally, it’s impossible to talk about Ghost Story without mentioning the amazing makeup effects from another set of icons, the inimitable Dick Smith and protégé Rick Baker. Alice Krige plays Eva/Alma in the film, the ghostly apparition that appears to the Chowder Society members for wrongs committed in the past and as a decayed corpse during modern times. Dick Smith and Rick Baker’s effects are impressive, memorable images that are haunting and gory. It’s a wonderful contrast to the deliberate narrative, which is an ongoing mystery that feels far better suited for the 1970s, yet still fits the updated times of the 1980s.
Ghost Story may have found negative reception upon its release, but it feels like the perfect transition for the horror and sci-fi times of the 1980s. Take the time to check this film out along with some of the other great films of 1981.
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