John Irvin directed Arnold in Raw Deal and Swayze in Next of Kin, as well as Hamburger Hill and several documentaries. He was asked to direct the film by producer Burt Weissbourd, who loved his direction of Haunted: The Ferryman, a British made-for-television movie.
Based on Peter Straub’s book and written by Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie, The Tommyknockers, the TV mini-series version of It), Irvin saw the story as one of hypocrisy and man’s fear — and even hatred — of women.
He gathered an all-star cast of classic actors, including Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Patricia Neal and John Houseman, to tell the story, as well as Craig Wasson and Alice Krige to play the younger characters. The director said that the filming was emotionally turbulent for Astaire, who confided in him that he felt he was going to die or be murdered, even considering leaving the film. Luckily, he stuck it out and finished the movie, turning in a great performance.
Businessman Ricky Hawthorne (Astaire), lawyer Sears James (Houseman), Dr. John Jaffrey (Douglas) and Mayor Edward Charles Wanderley (Fairbanks) are the Chowder Society, a group of elderly men connected by a past tragedy who now meet for drinks and tales of horror. While they’re meeting, Edward’s son David (Wasson) falls from his NYC apartment after seeing his girlfriend turn into a corpse, bringing brother Don (also Wasson) home.
Days later, Edward follows the ghost of his son to a bridge, where a female ghost causes him to fall into the water and die. And Gregory and Fenny Bate — two escapees from the insane asylum — start living in a ruined mansion on the edge of town.
While the authorities think his father committed suicide, Don believes otherwise, leading to him joining the Chowder society. To get in, he must tell a tale of horror. He tells what happened to him when he was a college professor and began an affair with a girl named Alma (Krige). The sexual nature of their relationship is pretty aggressive for a mainstream film, but Don soon realizes that there’s something really wrong with her. For one, she feels like a corpse.
Breaking things off, he soon learns Alma had begun dating his brother and plans on marrying her. Despite warning him of how dangerous she is, his brother is soon dead. And even worse, Don has found a photo of the Chowder Society with a woman who looks exactly like Alma.
Jaffrey wants to tell the truth, but the Chowder Society has kept the secret for too long. After a nightmare, he’s dead as well. That leaves Sears and Ricky to explain the horrible tale that has brought us to now.
In the spring of 1929, the men who would become the Chowder Society had all fallen for a mysterious woman named Eva Galli. Edward was the first to take her to bed, but he was unable to get aroused. However, he still told his friends that he successfully bedded her as they drank. They return to her home and all but Sears dance with her before she nearly tells the men that Edward was impotent. He jumps toward her and she smashes her head against the fireplace.
Thinking that she’s dead and not wanting to ruin their lives, they load her into a car and push it into the lake. However, she’s not dead and screams for them to save her, but faster than you can say Chappaquiddick, the car is under the icy water.
Due to Eva’s reputation as a woman of loose virtue, the townspeople were relieved when she’d gone missing. Yet her death has haunted them. Now, Ricky and Dawn are convinced that Alma and Eva are one and the same. After going to her home, Don gets a broken leg and Sears is killed by Eva’s ghost and Fennt stabbing him.
Ricky leaves to get help and ends up defeating Gregory Bate. He goes to get the authorities to drag the lake for Eva’s body. As that happens, the rotting corpse of Eva menaces Ricky until her dead body is revealed, stopping the curse.
While this film is a bit slow moving — keep in mind that it was made in 1981 — it still has plenty of tension and terror. The Dick Smith effects are wonderful and it really feels otherworldly in parts.