When Columbia made a made-for-TV version of the story in 1986 (starring Alyssa Milano), they made a very interesting choice: they left out most of the humor in favor of presenting it as a straight-up ghost story that would serve as a regular Halloween special for several years to come. (note: There's some debate as to whether this is the version Disney used to air, or if that was a more rare 1985 version.)
Even without the slapstick from Wilde's original, the special has a lot going for it. Certainly all of the elements of a good haunted house story are here - there's a spooky old castle in some part of the English countryside where the skies always seem gray the fog is always rolling in. There are servants who tend to vanish into the thin air, and a blood stain on the ground that never seems to go away. It's a terrific setup for a haunted house story, even if it WAS meant as a parody of them originally. Disney's version isn't without its humor, but it dispenses with the parody altogether and plays it straight.
It's very interesting to see Columbia trying to be scary instead of going for funny, even when being funny would have probably served the story better AND been more faithful to the original. In Wilde's story, the blood stain keeps re-appearing because the ghost is borrowing paint from Virginia to replace it. "It is a very difficult thing to get real blood nowadays," he explains.
|As in the story, the family's daughter, (Virginia in the story, renamed Jenny here), tries to make friends with the ghosts. She isn't really warming to her new stepmother, and asks the ghost to help scare her away. The ghost does his level best, and halfway through the movie, the family realizes that the ghost is real, not just the result of the servants trying to scare them away. As in the story, they make up their mind to try their best to live with the ghost until Jenny uses her tears to help Sir Simon find the solace of death.|
Sir Simon in orb form. Hot damn, an "orb" that isn't just dust!
I suppose that I should really judge the special on its own merits, though, not try to compare it to the original. As such, it has a lot going for it, but gets a bit dull sometimes and, at nearly two hours, goes on far too long.
But if you loved it and/or were scared of it as a kid, it's not one of those things that you'll rewatch only to be amazed by how easily amused/scared you were back then. Then again, I didn't see it as a kid, but I don't think I would have been able to sit through it, honestly. I would have been scared out of my wits by the scary parts, wouldn't have gotten most of the jokes, and wouldn't have made it through the parts that seem to drag on and on.
I highly recommend reading the hilarious original (it's a quick read) before watching it, just to get some use out of those comparing and contrasting skills you perfected back in English 101. It's on youtube now, of course.