Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Eric Bress
Writer: Eric Bress
Producer: D. Todd Shepherd, Shelley Madison, Joe Simpson
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Skylar Astin, Kyle Gallner, Alan Ritchson, Billy Zane, Shaun Toub
During World War II, five American soldiers battle Nazis as well as ghosts when they¡¯re assigned to defend a haunted French chateau.
Maybe the reason why we don¡¯t see more horror movies set in World War II is because that war was already horrible enough. ¡°Ghosts of War¡± shows us some of those awful sights. Bomb blasts mutilate men. Soldiers with minds cracked from combat carve gold teeth out of corpses. Emaciated Jewish refugees holster terrified children tightly on their hips.
¡°Ghosts of War¡± gradually glides away from these real world atrocities, though it very much revisits them during its shocking climax, to coast into an escapist fantasy of supernatural suspense. Chris (Brenton Thwaites) and his four fellow Americans have orders to maintain an Allied outpost at an old chateau in Nazi-occupied France. The men they¡¯re relieving are in a suspicious hurry to leave, practically dropping a wall of Road Runner dust in their rush. Chris and company quickly learn why. The mansion may be abandoned, but Morse code messages tapped out in phantom knocks, fleeting shadows of hanging bodies, and glimpses of ghoulish faces indicate these troopers are not alone.
Yes, it seems we¡¯ve walked into a familiar cobweb in filmdom¡¯s endless subdivision of tract home haunted houses. Yet what a house this one is!
Before opening up the inventory on ¡°Ghosts of War¡¯s¡± gaffes, I want to stress that the movie does objectively more right than it does subjectively wrong. Focus should be on the former. Unfortunately, chronological order dictates bandaging one of the film¡¯s messier injuries first.
Coming as no surprise considering its setup, ¡°Ghosts of War¡± follows formula for classically creepy chills. Not incorrectly, others might call them clich¨¦s. Of course this means donning an old hat bitten by moths like creaking doors, sudden gusts extinguishing flames, and flashlights going out while exploring dark cellars. Fortunately for the film, freshness comes from a cool cast and a fantastic location that¡¯s one of the most memorably macabre mansions on the block.
¡°Ghosts of War¡± would have done fine with four main characters instead of five. During its juggling, which is another woozy wound we¡¯ll tend to in a minute, the story sometimes forgets where each ball is in the air. Brenton Thwaite¡¯s ¡°Titans¡± co-star Alan Ritchson becomes one casualty. He makes an impression as a typical hero chiseled by confidence as much as physique, but doesn¡¯t have as much motivation as some others. ¡°Ghosts of War¡± puts itself in a similar pot later when one soldier disappears for an overlong period and no one notices he¡¯s not around.
The cynical minded might snicker that these five handsome men appear better groomed for a Hollywood headshot session than a gritty military mission. But in short order they¡¯re dropped into situations that show their savagery as believably brutal soldiers hardened by wartime horrors. Kyle Gallner in particular patents another of his deeply tortured soul personas whose deceptively sleepy eyes hide a bomb ready to explode should someone spontaneously sneeze in the wrong direction.
So even though we¡¯re retracing steps we¡¯ve taken in other fright films, we¡¯re doing it in good company. And with its sumptuous set dressing and appropriately dusty period props, eyes never tire of touring the mansion, even when stale scares obscure the view.
Wonky editing presents a higher hump to hurdle. The following sentence may be moot if something changes between the press screener and public release. But there¡¯s a scene conspicuously placed out of sequence at the 34-minute mark depicting the soldiers with facial scars they don¡¯t receive until later. Less likely to be rough cut errors are some other stray moments hinting at snipped subplots such as Eugene acting peculiarly possessed toward Chris only for nothing substantial to come of it. Someone seemingly edited for pace, and ¡°Ghosts of War¡± reaps the benefits of having a steady one, but bizarre bits were left behind when scenes shifted.
Okay, then what else makes the movie engaging? The overall mystery in play consistently keeps an intrigue plate spinning speedily, partly because we¡¯re enticed to continually guess what the exact nature of the haunting even is. The soldiers themselves speculate on the obvious answer. You know, the predictable ¡°twist¡± that usually turns out to be the big reveal in so many similar movies. They even roast routine vengeful ghost chestnuts by talking about proper burials to bring spirits peace.
Writer/director Eric Bress has something way wilder in store than all that though. While you¡¯re thinking of yawning, ¡°Ghosts of War¡± turns expectations on their ear with a switcheroo that goes from gothic ghost story back to real world horror in an astonishing eye blink. No film can take a swing this big without eliciting every averse reaction from ¡°Wait, what?¡± to ¡°Oh, c¡¯mon!¡± Yet ¡°Ghosts of War¡± earns the right to this redirect with an emotional payoff that¡¯s tragically heartbreaking. No act of sudden sci-fi silliness can overshadow how effectively every breadcrumb, clue, and seemingly insignificant detail culminates in an intense ending no one can possibly see coming.
This satisfyingly eerie climb to a wickedly creative conclusion combats frequent attacks from convention. A captivating cast similarly battles back against sketchy editing room actions until only the primary plotline matters anyway. ¡°Ghosts of War¡± may look like a haunted house yarn dripping with d¨¦j¨¤ vu from the outside. Inside, there¡¯s so much more that makes the movie impressively entertaining.
Review Score: 80