Color, 1974, 87 mins. 10 secs.
Directed by Stephen Weeks
Starring Marianne Faithfull, Barbara Shelley, Larry Dann, Murray Melvin, Vivian MacKerrell, Leigh Lawson
Nucleus Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
In a somewhat anachronistic 1930s England, three city men journey to the countryside to spend the weekend at an isolated estate now owned by one of them, the flamboyant McFayden (The Devils’ Melvin), who, when they aren’t all sniping at each other, informs them the place might be haunted. Sure enough, the most sensitive of the group, Talbot (Dann), starts experiencing sightings of a ghost, Sophy (rock legend Faithfull), whose presence is tied to the property’s ignoble past involving a forced stay at a madhouse (run by Hammer Films star Shelley). The group’s ghost hunter (MacKerrell, the real-life inspiration for Withnail & I), snidely dismisses any signs of supernatural activity, but the influence of the past gradually grows too powerful to ignore. Then there’s the creepy porcelain doll that keeps turning up at inopportune moments and seems to be Talbot’s escort to the past, or perhaps something much more sinister…
A film apparently designed to be described only by the word "eccentric," Ghost Story never tries to outright terrify viewers and only occasionally aims for anything truly shocking or disorienting. Much of the running time simply soaks in the rich period atmosphere and refined performances, which might not sit too well with many horror fans (particularly those who encountered this under its more common home video title, Madhouse Mansion). However, the riveting presence of Faithfull and unusual music score by Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin keep things on track as director Weeks (in his second and final horror film after Amicus’ I, Monster)
weaves the past and present story threads together into a sly finale. While Shelley has little to do, the rest of the excellent cast acquit themselves well with the male leads in particular getting plenty of juicy dialogue to enjoy as university colleagues not all exactly on the best of terms.
For such an obscure film, Nucleus Films went all out with a laudably extensive special two-disc DVD edition in 2009 containing everything you could possibly want to know about the production. The transfer is taken from the BBC’s master, probably the best one lying around at the time, and is presented moderately widescreen at 1.66:1 (not the 1.85:1 noted on the packaging). The film was originally shot more open than what's seen here so the ancient VHS actually has a sliver of extraneous information at the top and bottom. The image quality is definitely a huge step up from the VHS days, though by current standards it’s definitely on the soft side. The first disc contains the feature film along with the rarely-seen (and very long) theatrical trailer and a thorough audio commentary with Weeks and moderator Sam Umland, which covers Weeks’ considerable difficulties getting his films off the ground and completed to his satisfaction along with the headaches of dealing with distribution. Disc two features a very extensive new documentary, “Ghost Stories” (72m29s) whose running time puts it close to the main feature in terms of value. Weeks, Dann, Melvin, Shelley, and Geeson appear along with Kim Newman for an overview of the entire production, which features some great anecdotes about the vintage costumes (especially poor Dann who had the most unflattering ensemble of the bunch), the ill-fated MacKerrell (who’s actually quite good in his only notable film role), Faithfull’s severe addiction problems, and the various artistic and period influences on the film. Also included are a host of Weeks short films and commercials including “Owen’s War” (4m58s), “Deserted Station” (5m44s), “The Camp” (4m26s) (all 1965), the wonderfully atmospheric “Moods of a Victorian Church” (1m17s) (1967), “Two at Thursday” (10m42s) (1968), Tigon’s “1917” (34m12s) (1968) which would make an interesting companion to the 2019 Sam Mendes film of the same name, and the Kenneth Anger-ish “Flesh” (2m48s) (1968), with the last two shorts presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen (the rest are standard 4:3). Also included are a crazy Weeks commercial for “Chelsea Cobbler” (47s), pdfs of the original press book and a making-of overview, the alternate “spooky” opening title sequence created for the Madhouse Mansion version, liner notes by Darius Drewe Shimon, and bonus Nucleus trailers for Death Ship, London Voodoo, Bloodbath at the House of Death, The Ugliest Woman in the World, Varietease and Teaserama.
In 2019, Nucleus revisited the film for a Blu-ray edition with all of the preexisting relevant extras ported over now onto a single disc. The documentary, short films (newly remastered in HD, though some of them are still in so-so condition due to the ravages of time), commentary, commercial, trailer, and alternate credits are all here, plus an updated HD gallery (1m51s) of stills and promotional material. However, you also get some fascinating new extras as well starting off with the existing footage of The Bengal Lancers (34m2s), an abandoned 1984 Weeks production featuring Michael York, Christopher Lee, Trevor Howard, Miles O'Keefe and more. Though the film was torpedoed by attempted insurance fraud, it's fascinating to see what survives here courtesy of what survives from a ropey VHS copy-- especially if you're a Lee fan since he's all over it and gets to say lines like "Short of committing a public indecency with a goat in Piccadilly, I am untouchable." At the end of the reel you also get some raw production footage with commentary about the shenanigans pulled on the enterprise and the audio of a promo trailer prepared by Rank for an earlier 1978 launch. You also get a very quiet test sequence shot for a 1969 Weeks version of Gawain and the Green Knight (8m22s), which was eventually filmed in 1972 with some casting changes. A very entertaining reel of B&W Weeks commercials (7m49s) is also included and definitely worth watching to see some fantastically flashy mod editing in action for everything from cameras to orange juice to toilet paper. The transfer of the main feature (now framed at 1.78:1) is a massive upgrade, featuring much deeper and richer black levels, far more info on all four sides, and a more natural appearance in terms of both color and detail. The LPCM English 2.0 mono track is also in far better shape with the dialogue sounded a lot clearer throughout; new optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. The absolute definition of a package that gives you every penny’s worth, this is a superlative genre release that pays loving tribute to a film languishing for far too long in the shadows.
Updated review on October 24, 2019.