If it feels like Final Destination at war, that’s because Bress was a writer on some of those popular films.
By Elias Savada.
I was hoping the new film from Eric Bress, his first solo directorial effort after 2004’s lightly entertaining science fiction thriller The Butterfly Effect – which he co-helmed with J. Mackaye Gruber – would be a step forward. I was a fan of the three seasons of the ABC Family series Kyle XY, which he created with Gruber. Somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of Ghosts of War‘s 94-minute length, his new WWII horror entry held my interest. Sadly, watching the film’s whole premise collapse in its last 30 minutes, as Bress tries to switch genres and rip off some of the plotline from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, tossed my guarded optimism to the wind. The phrase “falling off a cliff” comes to mind.
Of course, war is a horror all its own. Men playing soldiers has been a common staple throughout the history of cinema. More recent supernatural variants have run the gamut from the splatstick Dead Snow (2009) to the 2004’s comic-based Hellboy to the mad scientist lair found in 2018’s Overlord. Bress’s film comes fairly close in the haunted castle domain found in Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984), but replaces the creepy castle with a haunted French chateau. When you layer on ghostly dreads, the protagonists aren’t just fighting Nazis, they’re also battling lots of angry spooky things that go bump in the night.
The expected ethereal sights and sounds, odd musical intonations, and jump edits are all set to an adequate level. Matches get blown out, flashlights stop working, breath turns frosty. Yeah, all the usual tropes.
The film centers around a quintet of war-weary All-American soldiers on a maneuver in Occupied France in 1944. At the head of the pack is Lieutenant Chris Goodson (Brenton Thwaites), aching-for-a-fight Butchie (Alan Ritchson, who also co-stars with Thwaites in DC’s Titans), Eugene (Skylar Astin), Kirk (Theo Rossi), and Tappert (Kyle Gallner). They’re an interchangeable set with any other character actors, although they do have a realistic rapport amongst themselves. It’s a babysitting mission to hold down a former German high command outpost. Their nightmare starts fairly early after they replace the freaked-out G.I. squad already on location.
Then the Germans return and blood splatters dance across the screen. The enemy meets their match, with an unexpected assist from the house’s vengeance-seeking unearthly inhabitants. They like their Nazis drowned, flambéed, lynched, and butchered in stark, gruesome ways that reflect the same tortures inflicted on the home’s family by an earlier visit by German forces. It ended poorly for the family in the mansion in that round; this time it’s a grisly victory for their spirits. If it feels like Final Destination at war, that’s because Bress was a writer on some of those popular films.
Before the film falls into its climactic demise, there are hints of oddities that reflect Bress’s interest in the paranormal. One of his soldiers reads a few paragraphs as a bedside story to a fatally wounded Butchie. It’s a fake Robert Heinlein title called Between Worlds with the gist of the tale being about quantum entanglement, one of the core concepts behind The Butterfly Effect and playing to that, and ultimately, this film’s perceived audience. Not quite sure why the hardcover book so magically appeared in the house years before the noted author’s first books were published.
Production designer Antonello Rubino built the lavish and shadowy chateau from the ground up in budget-friendly Bulgaria. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore does a marvelous job when he shoots in the “French” countryside and the interiors, using an abundance of lovely, period earth/sepia tones as the film’s palate.
At the hour mark, the four remaining soldiers leave the house, but a quirky time-space continuum rears its ugly head with an extended sequence better suited to Groundhog Day.
The whole film’s beliefs change in an instant when a bald-headed Billy Zane appears as the mysterious Dr. Engel. When the soldiers’ dialogue turns to constipation, no one remembers the last time they took a shit. But the viewer can probably start to see it hitting the fan moments later.
Bress should have stayed with the horror basics and solved the film’s core ghost concept without straying into WTF territory. His overly ambitious attempt to expand beyond a simple haunting tale implodes Ghosts of War‘s ending – when it most deserved being kept simple.
The film has been on DirecTV since June 18th and began screening on the virtual cinema landscape on July 17th.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).