Ghost Story (Stephen Weeks, 1974)
In the 1930s, snobby McFadyen (Murry Melvin), boorish Duller (Vivian Mackerrell), and sensitive Talbot (Larry Dann) head to the English countryside for a weekend of shooting at a long-uninhabited estate belonging to a friend of McFadyen. Strange occurrences like clanging pipes that sound like voices and a creepy Victorian doll are the least of Talbot’s worries as his class conscious school chums take amusement in his awkwardness and generally act catty (the bit where Duller and McFadyen discover that Talbot has made jam sandwiches for their hunting picnic is priceless). Although Duller’s hobby is spiritualism and he plans to make contact with the mansion’s ghostly inhabitants (if any), it is Talbot who is given unwelcome glimpses into the tragic past (by way of the doll) involving greedy Robert’s (Leigh Lawson of Polanski’s TESS) committing of his incestuously-infatuated sister Sophie (Marianne Faithful) to an insane asylum run by the unscrupulous Dr. Borden (Anthony Bate). Former housekeeper Miss Rennie (Penelope Keith, TO THE MANOR BORN) goes to the asylum in order to take Sophie away on the night that Borden has decided to burn it down and collect the insurance money. She accidentally sets the inmates free and they overrun the place, killing Borden and the guilt-ridden head nurse (Barbara Shelly) while Sophie escapes back to the mansion and Robert. The past and present begin to merge for Talbot (who encounters the spectres from the past in waking life as seemingly other people during brief escapes into town away from the oppressiveness of the house) is sucked into the tragedy as it plays out to its inevitable end and it seems that even the oblivious McFadyen and Duller (whose attempts at divining the house’s ghosts have proven frustratingly unsuccessful) may not be safe.
Scripted under the title ASYLUM, Weeks had to change the title after Amicus’ Milton Subotsky – after having read and expressed disinterest in Weeks’ script – appropriated the title for a Robert Bloch portmanteau film. GHOST STORY has less in common with the Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon productions of the time and is more evocative of the shot-on-film BBC television adaptations of M.R. James’ ghost stories (McFadyen and Duller discover some pornographic pictures hidden inside Talbot’s copy of an M.R. James volume). The pacing is sedate with many shots lingering after the action (Weeks cites Joseph Losey’s ACCIDENT as a stylistic inspiration) and Peter Hurst’s captures a believable and atmospheric portrait of rural England in his compositions (notably the shooting picnic disrupted by rainfall) even if the Indian drought renders the landscape a bit browner than Weeks would have liked. Ron Geesin provides a delirious experimental score that reaches its apex during the scene where the inmates overrun the asylum. Although the film’s cult value stems from the presence of Faithful, the rest of the cast are excellent. Dann makes an extremely likable and relatable protagonist next to the pitch-perfect snobbery of Melvin and Mackerrell. Mackerrell (who died of throat cancer during the 1980s was the inspiration for the Withnail character in Bruce Robinson’s autobiographic film WITHNAIL AND I) returned to India in 1984 to appear in Week’s film THE BENGAL LANCERS but the production was never finished (Nucleus and Weeks were unable to source the footage for inclusion here). Bate and Barbara Shelley (as the asylum’s matron) acquit themselves well thanks to the depth the script allows their characters beyond being merely Sophie’s corrupt keepers. Keith makes the most of her brief screentime as does Sally Grace as a maid who sleeps with Robert. Lawson barnstorms through his role but it might be said the script’s ambiguous backstory allows him as much freedom to go appropriately off the rails as it does Faithful to be effectively numb and vague.
GHOST STORY was hard to see in the video age. The only release was the big box US video tape from Comet Video under the title MADHOUSE MANSION (retitled to avoid confusion with Universal’s compromised 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub’s bestseller). This open-matte transfer was unauthorised by Weeks. Weeks’ director’s cut became more accessible when it appeared on BBC under its original title. The differences between the two versions are slight but significant given the way location shooting was split between England and India. The director’s cut opens with a series of scenes shot in England depicting Talbot and Duller heading to the train station (the first Indian location) with the credit A STEPHEN WEEKS COMPANY FILM and the title. The MADHOUSE MANSION version begins with a full opening credits sequence which is not part of Weeks’ director’s cut. As it was shot on film with optical titles (only the retitling itself is video generated) over a static shot of the Bangalor palace, it does not seem to be something created for this unauthorised release (although the end credits montage present in both versions credits all of the actors and both the main technicians and below-the-line crew so it seems that the main titles may have been added by someone who thought a more atmospheric opening would be appropriate). This title sequence also starts with the Stephen Weeks Company logo which is not seen on the BBC version. It also credits only Marianne Faithful and Leigh Lawson above the title (although Lawson is not mentioned on the disc’s front cover) and lumps in the three main actors with the supporting actors on one card after the title (the end credits sequence present on both presents the cast in alphabetical order). The first shot after the credits is the train station (so this version contains nothing of what was shot in England). Weeks does not mention creating this sequence in the commentary (which is presented as an extra on disc 2). The only other difference I could discern in the director’s cut is a brief flash back to the London Underground sequence during one of Talbot’s delirious montages. Although the BBC TV print was also open-matte, Nucleus Films (making use of BBC’s master) is presented at 1.72:1 and 16:9 enhanced. As with the TV print, the colours are bolder, the image sharper, and the sound cleaner (and louder) than the US video tape and is certainly the more accurate viewing option as Weeks has stated that it was intended to be seen at 1.85:1 (the review discs were single-layer but the pressed Disc 2 should be dual-layer).
The audio commentary with Stephen Weeks (moderated by Sam Umland) is very illuminating in both story and technical terms. Weeks cites the shot where Talbot after entering the house is caught in a shaft of sunlight by a billowing blind as the moment where the house “chooses” him. He also explains how the seeming throwaway shot of Duller finally seeing a ghost from his car window when leaving and a shot of the car passing the abandoned Borden Insane Asylum sign denotes not his departure from the film but his entrapment in the past (illuminating a later shot of Duller as one of the inmates). Weeks also reveals that older actor Ronald Lacey was intended for the role of Duller and David Leland (who starred in Weeks’ Tigon short 1917) for Talbot but when Lacey’s doctor would not sign off on him going to India, Mackarrel was cast as Duller and that required a younger actor for Talbot (Lacey is credited as production consultant). The shots of the Talbot and the doll running (an Indian child actress made up for the part) were actually shot in reverse with the actors moving backwards (a detail hard to discern due to the other off-kilter elements of the sequence). American hippies were cast as the asylum inmates (reportedly after they were allowed to dine with the film’s cast and crew, the Indian servers smashed the pieces of Royal Doulton china they ate off of because they considered hippies to be lowly), the vintage cars were ones seen driving around Bangalor that the crew then rented from their owners, art director Peter Young shows up as two extras, Leigh Lawson’s wife (before Twiggy) plays a woman Talbot sees outside of the pub, Weeks’ French ex-wife Joelle worked not only on the costumes but also plays the bicycling girl seen earlier by Talbot, and many of the extras were British ex-pats living in India. The exterior English manor was actually a palace in Bangalor while the interiors were shot at another palace (both stylized when built to look British). Weeks does not know why he is not on speaking terms with co-scenarist/journalist Phillip Norman. Historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff polished the period dialogue and would go on to script Weeks’ SWORD OF THE VALIANT.
The first disc includes only the film with optional commentary and the rarely seen theatrical trailer (which emphasizes that the film is a product of Britain’s youngest production company yet also refers to the film as a classic). The substantial extras are on the second disc with the main extra being the 72 minute documentary GHOST STORIES featuring input from Larry Dann, Murry Melvin, Barbara Shelley, Stephen Weeks, Ron Geesin, and critic Kim Newman. There is a lot of repeated information from the commentary including, understandably, several of the contributors reminiscing about Vivian Mackerrell’s fine performance, his bad luck as a working actor, and his unfortunate early death as well as Marianne Faithful’s health and how it might have influenced her performance. There is also a lot of new information not only from the actors but from Weeks who one would have thought would have said everything possible on the commentary (such as his reluctance to use the otherwise perfect Oakley Court location because it had been seen in so many British horror films, his hunch that he would find a “lost Britain” in post-colonial India, and his discovery of the Bangalor Palace in a vintage guide book). The GHOST STORIES documentary is chapter-encoded and comes with its own scene selection menu.
Also present on the second disc are seven short films by Weeks dating from between 1965 and 1968 including the funny yet moving Tigon production 1917 (1968; narrated by Joss Ackland), the longest short, tells the parallel “in the trenches” stories of a German soldier (Timothy Bateson) fantasising about desertion and a British soldier (David Leland) starved for action. The spooky MOODS OF A VICTORIAN CHURCH (1967) seems like a forerunner for GHOST STORY’s atmospherics and makes one regret that GHOST STORY was not shot in 2.35:1 (understandable given the shoestring budget) as Weeks certainly has an eye for scope compositions demonstrated here and in 1917). FLESH (1968) is the most provocative one as it juxtaposes details of a woman’s nude body with a side of beef. A commercial for The Chelsea Cobbler made by Weeks and the alternate MADHOUSE MANSION (matted and 16:9 enhanced here) title sequence round out the video extras on disc 2 but there are also 4 PDF files accessible from your DVD-ROM drive and six Nucleus Films trailers.
This two disc set not only respectfully represents the film with its commentary and documentary, it also gives the underrated director Weeks his due (especially since the US and UK DVDs of his I, MONSTER are barebones as is MGM’s horribly cropped DVD of SWORD OF THE VALIANT; neither of which Weeks was happy with due to production and post-production interference).