The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
“What do you want?” This first (and last) line of dialogue spoken in Ghosts of War is a tenuous question. The characters don’t know what they want. The audience doesn’t know either. By the end we aren’t sure what was even on the table to ask for. I started this film late at night, knowing nothing about it except its WW2 setting. I watched the trailer to get some frame of reference. I saw the set up to be a haunted house jumpscare marathon. Great.
I have never been keen on jumpscares as a plot device, save for a few well earned moments. I thought I was interested in seeing the haunted house carnival ride type of horror juxtaposed with a war setting, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath.
Mixing of war and horror isn’t a wholly new concept. However, instead of monsters and Nazis, our American heroes fight ghosts and Nazis. Director Eric Bress (The Butterfly Effect) has a unique sandbox to play in here. The atmosphere of the Allied-occupied manor set piece drips with dark, shadowy corners. This chateau is chilling, echoing the pain endured within. But the issue here is the balance between tones. Bress (who also wrote) wants to creep us out, and in many instances he does. The desire for this mood to coalesce with the tonal threads of war and humanity does not work though. This is more to do with the ending of the film. For the bulk of Ghosts, Bress allows teamwork and brotherhood to breathe through his characters as they progress through The Haunted Mansion. The ending feels like a bit of a cheat, and the world we were dropped into fades away. Bress should’ve stayed in that sandbox.
Towards the end of World War 2, the German military was on its backfoot. The Allies were gaining ground, pushing the Third Reich out of France. It is here that we are introduced to our five main characters in a chilling opening sequence. I maintain to this day that what you don’t see is always scarier. Sadly, the true scariness stops here. The characters are American soldiers who look a little too clean for having spent this much time fighting tyranny. There is the baby-faced lieutenant in charge and the rest of his squad, each idiosyncratic enough to stand out from the other. They shamble through fields and French towns, killing Nazis and comforting citizens. Their mission: defend a chateau (that apparently has some strategic advantage that is never explained) for an undisclosed amount of time. They relieve the weary soldiers at the chateau who are a little over eager for them to take charge. One relieved soldier even leaves his pack behind. Soon enough, the tropes of haunted house films creepily unfold. The new occupants explore the house, investigating ominous sounds and having sightings of figures behind curtains. The sniper-soldier charged with overwatch security sees ghostly images through his scope. One soldier, who conveniently knows morse code, German, and whatever else the plot needs, uncovers pertinent books and artifacts in the basement. While he begins to unravel and explain exposition, the soldiers repel a German attack on the manor. Some of these Germans are dispatched via supernatural means. Of course, these means are a family of ghosts haunting the house that love jumping out to announce their presence when things get too quiet. The Americans begin to understand rather too easily that their charge to protect the house has severe baggage attached to it. This would do well enough as a stand alone story. It is something we have seen executed many times before; the auxiliary WW2 backdrop would’ve given it a unique setting. But the plot jumps traffic lanes the last 25 minutes. We are introduced to a plot twist which comes about two decades too late. There is an attempt to drop clues and provide foreshadowing that gives justification to it. The plot meanders through hazes of themes at the end that ask us to draw connotations and parallels. I cannot reveal the exact messages without giving away too much. That therein lies the problem. The motifs of brotherhood and “doing the right thing” are littered throughout the first hour of the film already. The superfluous additive the third act gives us does not add to these themes.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
One true strength that this film has is the quality of talent on screen, but even that has its limitations. Two of the soldiers are played by Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect), and they deliver their best given the script which is littered with anachronistic language and contrived placement. This is meant to service the plot’s twist but hits the ear wrong given the setting. Some of the writing aims to be helpful for a casual viewer but is in fact just lazy (e.g. Pashto or Dari is the official language of Afghanistan, not “Afghan”). Thankfully, the rest of the actors rounding out the squad give similarly serviceable performances. There is a cringey cameo by executive producer Billy Zane who doles out hokey dialogue meant to further flesh out the twist. The heart of this film lies in the five leads as they display compassion and teamwork. Fortunately, we spend most of the time with them.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
"...Haunted House Carnival Ride Type Of Horror Juxtaposed With A War Setting..."
I was filled with disappointment in this category. For a film that encapsulates the horrors of war and terrors of the supernatural, the effort was not there. Gunshot wounds are completed with horrible CGI. A character is mercilessly hanged, looking as if they were told to feign sleeping by the director. In all fairness, some of the graphic ramifications displayed (limbs missing, jaws blown off) were convincing. Sadly, there was too much that fell short; this took me out of the film.
Ghosts of War (2020) | VOD
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
An overarching score by Mike Suby blends the drifting setting of horror and war quite well. The scarier moments are paired with a solemn piece of music playing right before. As one would expect from a horror film chock full of jumpscares, there exists the accompanying, assaulting sound bites. If jumpscares aren’t your thing, consider giving this film a pass. But the foley artists did more than just compliment jarring imagery with sharp bangs or stinging staccato hits. The creep factor is amplified by subtle foot steps, morse code rapping on pipes, and raspy taunts on a radio.
There was a unique opportunity here to weave the worst thing mankind ever created with the chilling attraction that only ghost stories can provide. Eric Bress has an ambitious idea here, but he unfortunately wrote himself into a quandary of that ambition. Reaching back to his first effort, The Butterfly Effect, I can see where he was trying to take this film. The premise here is indeed an interesting one, it just doesn’t take off like it should. The script needed one or two more passes and then placed into the hands of a director with a bigger story-telling vocabulary. The twist is ironically what hurts the most here. There is little strength that can be mined out of the ending; this is where Bress overshoots his reach.
“What do you want?” Given the potential, I wanted a better film.