A film review by Craig J. Koban August 8, 2020

GHOSTS OF WAR jj

2020, R, 95 mins.

Brenton Thwaites as Chris  /  Theo Rossi as Kirk  /  Skylar Astin as Eugene  /  Kyle Gallner as Tappert  /  Alan Ritchson as Butchie

Written and directed by Eric Bress    

 

 

I love a solid genre mishmash as much as the next, and the one proposed by director Eric Bress (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT) is an intriguing one, to be sure, in GHOSTS WAR.  The film builds up an awful lot of initial promise as a World War II, men-on-a-mission flick crossed with an haunted house supernatural horror film.  There have been recent examples of films melding fact and horror fiction (like the superbly underrated zombie-fuelled OVERLORD), but the notion of PTSD-ravaged soldiers having to deal with all sorts of paranormal phenomenon in a possessed chateau while on a tour of duty is certainly novel.  Unfortunately, GHOSTS OF WAR sort of wastes the freshness of its genre hodgepodge with too much generic jump scare thrills that devolves into one of the most incredulous plot twisty third acts of recent memory.  You'll either love or hate, and I found myself occupying a place somewhere in the middle. 

The film opens in mid-1940s Nazi occupied France as we are introduced to a group of roughed and rugged American soldiers that have been tasked with seeking out, securing and defending a private country home that was once used by the Germans as a remote HQ.  The battle hardened men - comprised of Lt. Goodson (Brenton Thwaites), Eugene (Skylar Austin), Butchie (Alan Ritchson), Kirk (Theo Rossi) and Tappert (Kyle Gallner) - are all cut from the same obligatory war hero stock types that we've seen in countless other films before (the quiet and reserved one, the hot headed loose cannon with an itchy trigger finger, the hulking brute, and so forth), but the five actors in question bring a certain level of natural on-screen camaraderie that helps elevate their respective character's lack of development.  The team dynamic is set-up during a well crafted early sequence involving them confronting a captured alive Nazi prisoner, who one of them demands to engage with him in a good old fashioned fist fight to prove Yankee power.  Goodson, the de facto leader of the group, decides to shoot the solider violently and quickly in the head to end the stalemate, seeing as he's a pragmatist that doesn't like to waste time...on top of having a sadistic streak, to be sure. 

Obviously, these men have clearly gone through proverbial hell on the bloody battlefronts, which leads to them believing that the relatively simple recon and holding of the aforementioned chateau to be a walk in the park for all of them, not to mention that the possibility for a bit of easy-going R&R is alluring.  When they arrive at the home something just seems eerily off from the onset, and the team's first night is typified by multiple strange occurrences, like doors spontaneously opening, creepy footsteps not their own heard in odd places, and so on.  That, and they discover journals left by the original residents (who saved runaway Jews) that seems to tip off all of their horrible deaths at the hands of Nazis.  Stranger things start to rear their ugly heads, like ominous symbols plastered everywhere in the attic, which alludes towards the Nazi intruders doing some unendingly cruel things to the home's original denizens.  Predictably, ghosts start making their appearance, which prompts the men to want to flee the home immediately, but then a squad of vengeful Nazis show up to complicate things and stymie their efforts.  Goodson and company find themselves dealing with a whole other ghastly double threat that they've never experienced in war before. 

 

 

Again, I liked the basic premise of GHOSTS OF WAR, and the opening sections hint at some retrograde, B-movie thrills and scares to be had moving forward (blending supernatural with a period setting is hardly new, but the hook of Bress' film has its own brand of distinctiveness).  The story manages to get inside the already fragile and traumatized headspaces of these soldiers that have seen many a hellish sight, which makes the prospect of having their sanity tested even further with a haunted house all the more unnerving (they're fighting mental demons as well as literal ones here).  GHOSTS OF WAR may not be an expensive production, but it nevertheless looks quite good throughout, especially for the way cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore creates great environmental tension with framing the terrified soldiers within the deeply unsettling surroundings of the home's dark and twisted interiors.  The idea of what's lurking around these dark corridors and hallways is arguably more terrifying than the ghosts themselves when they appear, making the house a dreary antagonist in its own right.  GHOSTS OF WAR is dripping with a reasonable amount of nail-biting atmosphere and sensation of dread, not to mention that some of the individual action beats - like the mid-section one featuring the soldiers defending the spooky home from fifty-plus Nazi invaders - are well oiled and pack a solid, brain splattering potency. 

Regretably, though, the largest issue plaguing GHOSTS OF WARS is the titular enemies themselves.  The artistic conception of these would-be scary apparitions are not particularly inspired and seemed cannibalized from the look of countless ghosts from other horror films (they're monochromatic, sport devilish faces, and screech at ear piercing and heart stopping levels).  Another nagging problem is this film's slavish reliance on jump scare with these ghosts, and after a few decently orchestrated "boo!" moments to get viewers feeling ill at ease, Bress keeps methodically regurgitating these instances to the point where you can predict with reasonable accuracy when they're going to occur again.  Added on to that is the film's adherence to the mostly overused haunted house conventions in the genre playbook and what we're basically left with is an inconsistent - at best - fright fest that never fully capitalizes on its nifty premise.  

And speaking of premise and payoff, GHOSTS OF WAR ends up displaying little confidence in the strength of the former for carrying the entirety of the film, which builds towards, as referenced, a plot twist late in the game that all but undoes everything that has transpired building up to it.  I don't want to get into specifics because that would easily straddle spoiler territory, but the final act revelations presented here desperately want to shake things up and make viewers re-evaluate the entire story and the characters' predicament, but it never once feels justified or earned in the slightest.  GHOSTS OF WAR could have agreeably coasted by as a simple horror/war film with modestly engaging grindhouse sensibilities, but Bress really fumbles the ball with this potential less is more approach.  Let's just say that he takes the absolutely most complicated route of explaining the reasons behind the spirits tormenting the home and soldiers when a very economical "the house is haunted and the soldiers have to face it" narrative solution would have just sufficed.  Some may find the out-of-left-field story developments here as clever, whereas I got a headache from all of the eye rolling just thinking about it. 

It's all too bad, because the fine actors here bring their A-game (albeit, with weakly drawn roles driven on screenplay autopilot), and the film is well shot and boasts stellar production values, but the sum of those few good elements don't make for a successful or satisfying whole at all.  Roughly half of GHOSTS OF WAR works with reasonable competence, and I dug the core idea of blending WWII trauma with unexplainable specters unleashing a whole other type of nightmare on soldiers, but the follow through on this is simply too overly convoluted and feels unnecessarily tacked on.  Edit out the final 20-30 minutes and re-write and shoot the ending and we might have had something with GHOSTS OF WAR.  Alas, if you want to watch a horror film that builds up faith in viewers early on and then crushes that good will with preposterous last minute twists that will anger more than blow  minds, then seek this one out. 

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