Sadistic Nazis, PTSD-afflicted Allied soldiers, angry spirits and creepy dolls make for an already-formidable pile of scare factors in “Ghosts of War,” which then topples the stack by loading too many additional elements in the final stretch. This second feature from “The Butterfly Effect” co-director Eric Bress likewise has a trickily structured take on reality. But in this case, it’s closer to the realm of “The Cabin in the Woods” in that the initial, fairly straightforward horror tale is eventually reframed as part of something larger.
It’s the kind of narrative leap that can make or break a film. But here it overcomplicates a narrative that should’ve better developed its basic elements, rather than lunging for a big-picture profundity it falls short of. Beautifully atmospheric to a point, handsomely produced, “Ghosts” gradually disappoints because its thematic ambitions add more clutter than depth to a story that’s most effective at its simplest. Vertical Entertainment is releasing to U.S. virtual cinemas, on demand and digital July 17, after being available exclusively via DirectTV for a month.
It’s 1944 in Nazi-occupied France, and a quintet of American soldiers are tasked with holding a private countryside residence recently utilized by German high command. After what Lt. Goodson (Brenton Thwaites) and his unit — bookish Eugene (Skylar Astin), all-brawn Butchie (Alan Ritchson), straight-arrow Kirk (Theo Rossi) and borderline-psychotic Tappert (Kyle Gallner) — have already been through, this assignment is practically a vacation. All they need to do is babysit the sprawling, spectacular chateau until replacements arrive, taking advantage of plush beds and a full larder after long hardships. Their enthusiasm is barely dampened by the inexplicable eagerness of the company they themselves are replacing to get the hell outta there.
Their first night is a restless one, disturbed by phenomena like phantom footsteps on the floors above and doors that open by themselves, not to mention all those blankly staring dolls. A journal is discovered that reveals the original family residents (who’d hidden refugee Jews here) died horrible deaths at the hands of Nazis. Soon the Yanks concede this house is haunted, and are ready to decamp to the surrounding woods. But a regiment of Nazis turns up, making immediate escape impossible — and then, it seems, the house itself won’t let them go.
Shot in Bulgaria, “Ghosts of War” does a first-rate job establishing an environment of real-world as well as supernatural unease, with a very impressive look dominated by DP Lorenzo Senator’s complexly lit widescreen compositions and Antonello Rubino’s plush-yet-decrepit production design. The house has great personality inside and out, lending plenty of preparatory dread to some well-engineered jump scares.
But all too quickly we’re in the realm of chalk-faced, black-mouthed ghoulies simply lunging at the camera, and a sense of time-locked entrapment whose quest for resolution grows ever more frenetic. While Bress sprinkles a few telling anachronisms throughout, the eventual big reveal still feels like an overreach. Too action-oriented and dependent on genre tropes for the weight of moral and political questioning it takes on, “Ghosts” is never again as compelling as when just soaking in eerie mystery early on. The first half hour is so promising, this is the rare horror exercise you wish were longer, if only to let those rich atmospherics dominate longer before they’re crowded out by an excess of plot mechanics.
Though Thwaites’ nominal lead seems too boyish to command his fellow grunts, the cast is generally strong. Michael Suby’s original orchestral score strikes a note a bit conventional for a war movie that so quickly strays from robust, old-school combat adventure terrain.