One of the reasons my love for horror runs so deep is its malleability...
...Injecting horror elements into any genre, even an already action-oriented one like war films, often yields unique and creatively refreshing results.
The horrors of war have always been a fitting backdrop for supernatural stories. As death and destruction ravage the battlefield, innocents are inevitably caught in the crossfire. And in the case of Ghosts of War, victims of injustice make their own vengeance, even after death.
Written and directed by Eric Bress (The Butterfly Effect), Ghosts of War blends World War II epic with haunted house horror. Five American soldiers must hold a French chateau at the tail end of the war. Upon arriving at their objective, they sense something off about the allies they’ve been sent to relieve. It doesn't take long before our protagonists learn of the horrors haunting the chateau's halls.
There have been countless WWII horror films, but Ghosts of War is perhaps the first to tackle the haunted house subgenre. Ghosts’ strongest tool for capturing the essence of haunted houses is its immaculate set design. With its lavish locale, the grand scale of the chateau setting is eloquent enough to give the film a unique presentation. The architecture and aesthetic evoke a gothic tone, which keeps the film firmly planted in the horror realm. We are introduced to the building through a memorable montage of long shots of individual rooms, which hold subtle clues to the fate of the chateau's previous owners.
As the squad explores the home, they uncover the fate of the prior residents who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. The family left something behind, though. Something that doesn't take kindly to unexpected guests. Strange supernatural occurrences become more frequent; odd noises and shadowy figures roam the halls. Unfortunately, this is where the film stumbles into several common horror pitfalls.
While Ghosts of War's sense of atmosphere is sound in establishing its tone, the film is overly reliant on predictable jump scares. Every other scare is a character turning to suddenly face a screaming ghost. More than once, a solider looks through their rifle scope only to have a ghost pop up in the lens. This frequent return to the same device does a disservice to the film's more refined narrative twists.
Despite its overabundance of jump scares, Ghosts of War does a decent job of utilizing its WWII era setting. One scene, for example, takes a standard shootout between American and Nazi forces and adds a supernatural twist. As the Americans become separated and Nazis enter the chateau, ghostly forces begin picking off the enemy in increasingly brutal ways. It's a brief scene, but it remains a highlight amongst otherwise tepid scares and underwhelming action.
While Ghosts of War may be light on originality in some departments, the second half takes an effective and unexpected turn. Throughout the film, there is a feeling that something is unfolding behind the scenes. Not because of the haunting, but rather strange, small oddities that occur periodically. Brief dialogue quirks that the soldiers notice in conversation amongst each other but cannot explain the how or why of. These instances are presented in a confusing manner, making little sense until the film’s twist, when everything funnels into one cohesive and unpredictable conclusion.
Without delving into narrative spoilers, suffice it to say Ghosts of War evolves from a simple ghost story into a more complex exploration of how soldiers process their grief and trauma. It's a jarring narrative evolution that will challenge most fans’ tolerance for drastically blending genres.
The twist worked for me as it gave originality to a film that was in short supply of it. And yet, this welcomed twist was undercut by a lack of emotional investment in protagonists. Apart from Kyle Gallner (Interrogation, American Sniper), the rest of the soldiers are defined by standard soldier tropes. Gallner gives the most engaging and emotionally charged monologue of the film, detailing the horrors of war he has faced. Through this speech we see the toll war and all its atrocities takes on the human soul, his in particular. Had there been more scenes with soldiers ruminating on their experiences, the film’s twist might hold more weight.
Ghosts of War's reception will more than likely be starkly divided. As a genre fan, I can look past some of its meager scares while applauding its bizarre but original plot twist, despite the sudden ending and lack of character development making such an impactful creative breakthrough feel somewhat cheapened. I suspect more casual viewers may be underwhelmed and unable to look past the film's vanilla scares, but who doesn’t love ghosts killing Nazis?
Ghosts of War haunts VOD/Digital July 17th from Vertical Entertainment
By Jay Krieger