If you’re old enough to remember a time when Nazis were scary enough all by themselves, you may be a bit flummoxed by Ghosts of War. Combining war and horror movie tropes in an awkward manner more silly than scary, this belated sophomore feature from writer/director Eric Bress (2004’s The Butterfly Effect) makes you long for the days when American G.I.s didn’t have to fight supernatural beings as well as German soldiers.
The genre mash-up begins conventionally enough, with five American soldiers dispatching a group of Nazis, including one played by Billy Zane. That such a familiar actor dies within the first few minutes provides a pretty reasonable clue that things are going to get pretty strange, and indeed they do.
The soldiers, led by Lt. Goodson (Brenton Thwaites, D.C.’s Titans), encompass a group (Sklyar Astin, Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Alan Ritchson) whose extremely disparate personality traits seem to have been designed by a character-defining algorithm. That was apparently by design, as Bress, in a Director’s Note, admits, “Not going for subtlety here.” He’s not kidding.
The quintet’s next assignment is to position themselves in a lavish chateau in the French countryside, previously used by high-level Nazi officers and currently occupied by American soldiers whose shell-shocked demeanors and extreme rush to move on indicate that their stay there hasn’t been a pleasant one.
The same holds true for Lt. Goodson and his men, who soon discover things very much going bump in the night in the chateau, which, we eventually learn, is haunted by the French family who once lived there before being murdered by the Nazis for hiding refugee Jews. The same Jews, presumably, whom the soldiers encounter more than once during their wanderings, many wearing concentration camp uniforms.
The proceedings quickly devolve into standard horror movie clichés, including horrific visions that turn out to be nightmares and jarring noises that are revealed to be nothing more sinister than a tea kettle going off (“Earl Grey?” a soldier asks his fellow grunts, unaware of their terror). There are mysterious clanging sounds that turn out to be ominous messages in Morse Code, the revelation of an elaborate pentagram symbol drawn underneath a rug, apparitions that seem to have been left over from a haunted house attraction, and a children’s room filled with creepy porcelain dolls and a music box that starts by itself. You begin wondering when Annabelle and Chucky will show up.
Not surprisingly, the soldiers make the wise decision to vacate the premises, one declaring, “Fuck the court-martial, this place has bad juju.” But the strangeness doesn’t end after they leave, prompting one of them to compare their situation to Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a reference that doesn’t exactly come off as organic.
It’s at this point that Ghosts of War delivers the sort of whopping, out-of-left field plot twist that you’ll either find extremely clever in a Rod Serling sort of way or make you simply throw up your hands. Chances are — especially if you happen to be, or know, a war veteran suffering from PTSD — you’ll be inclined toward the latter. Although the final scenes do provide the opportunity for Zane, whose bald pate makes him resemble Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, to make a reappearance.
Available in virtual cinema screenings, on demand and digital
Production companies: Miscellaneous Entertainment, Highland Film Group
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Skylar Astin, Kyle Gallner, Alan Ritchson, Billy Zane, Shaun Toub
Director/screenwriter: Eric Bress
Producers: D. Todd Shepherd, Shelley Madison, Joe Simpson
Executive producers: Andrew Mann, Colleen Camp, Alastair Burlingham, Charlie Dombek, Billy Zane, Jonathan Bross, Adrian Jayashina, Simon Williams, Josh James, Hiroshi Mikitani, Mike Clark, Matthew Reese, Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern,
Director of photography: Lorenzo Senatore
Production designer: Antonello Rubino
Editor: Peter Amundson
Composer: Michael Suby
Costume designer: Irina Kotcheva
Casting: Brandon Henry Rodriguez
Rated R, 94 min.