"Ghost Story," a horror movie about a quartet of elderly cronies terrorized by a deadly apparition from their shameful youth, would appear to be some sort of waxworks chiller for a group of aging actors -- Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the late Melvyn Douglas. However, it's more likely to boost the name of a young actress, Alice Krige, than shed twilight luster on distinguished careers.
Krige (pronounced kree-ga) left a charming calling card earlier this season as the D'Oyly Carte actress who becomes Ben Cross' fiance' in "Chariots of Fire." In "Ghost Story" she contributes an erotic presence, sustaining a tricky -- even ludicrous -- supernatural assignment as a living devil-doll, the seductive specter haunts the four old gents and two young suitors, Craig Wasson in the dual role of Fairbanks' twin sons.
The fundamental outrageousness of this brazen ghost, whose principal alias is Alma Mobley, would no doubt expose a less skillful actress to embarrassment, but Krige invests this phantom with an exquisitely sinister carnality. Her shining, round-cheeked doll's face seems a little unreal, and there's a ferocious edge on the impatient side of her husky, come-hither voice. She's a choice supernatural mantrap, and the most effective single shock in the movie emphasizes the suggestion of madness that lurks behind her beaming naughtiness.
Residents of a small New England town called Milburn (a scenic composite of Woodstock, Vt., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) the elderly gents are solid citizens -- Fairbanks is the mayor, Astaire and Houseman share a law practice, and Douglas is a retired doctor. Years ago they formed an association nicknamed the Chowder Society, meeting regularly to share dinner and exchange ghost stories. As the movie begins, they are sharing something else: a mutual nightmare. Before it's tracked to a guilty secret hidden 50 years before, two members of the Society and one ill-fated bystander are driven to suicide.
What "Ghost Story" lacks is a story ingenious enough to reinforce the voluptuous intensity generated by Krige's performance as the avenging phantom and director John Irvin's stylish production. After distinguishing himself in British television in the late '70s with "Hard Times" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," Irvin has demonstrated an exciting cinematic flair in "The Dogs of War," released last summer, and now "Ghost Story," which reunited him with several key collaborators, notably the veteran cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
Derived from an unwieldy thriller by Peter Straub, "Ghost Story" has a convoluted plot, reaching back into a guilt-ridden past, but the elaborate embroidery ultimately uncovers a trite pattern.
It's not only the payoffs that fail to justify the gothic rigmarole. Even the kicker seems to imply that once the old boys' skeleton is out of the closet, irrational fears will vanish and the spirit world will rest easy. There's a peculiar irony in this: the screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, adapted Stephen King's "Carrie" for Brian DePalma. Who can forget the kicker in that modern horror classic? How curious to find Cohen participating in a new horror movie daft enough to sign off with the suggestion that those phantoms may not keep rising up out of their graves after all.