‘Ghoul’: Film Review
This supernatural thriller features an American documentary crew investigating contemporary cannibalism in Ukraine
If a TV documentary series titled “Cannibals of the Twentieth Century” sounds appealing, then Ghoul may provide some meager satisfaction in pursuit of understanding this unsavory class of killers. As low-budget horror filmmaking goes however, this is derivative, uninspired material that’s best suited to late-night online streaming and even then, an inordinate degree of patience may be required to attain any payoff.
Czech writer, producer, director and actor Petr Jakl devotes his mixed bag of experience to a scenario involving the Ukrainian serial killer and notorious cannibal Andrei Chikatilo, considered the region’s most prolific mass murderer of the late 20th Century. Further frissons are achieved by setting the action in the same region that experienced extensive famine and cannibalism during the 1930s resulting from Stalin’s extremist policies.
Jakl’s film even suggests that the Ukraine is still a haven for the taboo practice, which is perhaps a factor in attracting an American documentary crew filming a pilot for a proposed series on contemporary cannibals. Arriving in Kiev, cameraman Ethan (Jeremy Isabella), director Rayn (Paul S. Tracey) and his girlfriend and reporter Jenny (Jennifer Armour) meet up with their translator Katarina (Alina Golovlyova) and a hired driver before heading for the Ukrainian hinterlands.
In Chikatilo’s home town of Yablochnoye, they encounter famine survivors who confirm rumors of cannibalism in the 30s and meet a local man actually convicted of the crime years before who blames his actions on the influence of supernatural forces. Their guide convinces the man to give an interview at his former residence, an abandoned farm. Enroute to the property they meet Inna (Inna Belikova), a woman identified as a “witch” familiar with the area’s dark past, who agrees to help with their investigation.
After rigging the farmhouse with cameras and lighting, their interview subject fails to show up, so the group is forced to pass the night in the rundown structure, where they discover a strange pentangle inscribed into the surface of the dining room table. During a drunken evening of vodka-swilling, the Americans and Katarina hold a mock seance at the table pretending to invoke Chikatilo. The next morning, Inna tells them that their driver has disappeared with his vehicle and that Chikatilo’s malevolent spirit has entered the house, preventing anyone from leaving. As strange and threatening events around the property intensify, Inna convinces the group that their lives are at risk if they don’t obey the increasingly extreme demands of the threatening spirit.
Jakl’s build-up to the film’s more explicit later scenes is frustratingly leisurely, squandering most of the first half-hour on the group’s petty interpersonal conflicts and bickering over the uncertain trajectory of the shoot. Although he doesn’t shirk predictably gruesome depictions of depravity in the film’s final quarter-hour, Jakl’s overall stylistic reference appears to be similar to The Blair Witch Project’s handheld, backwoods horror-show dynamic, augmented by conventional jump scares and eerie sound design.
Visual effects are kept to a minimum however, although the film's verite TV aesthetic couldn’t tolerate much creativity in any case. The cast’s performances are almost uniformly unremarkable, particularly the renditions of frequently grating Ukrainian characters.
Production company: J.B.J Film
Cast: Jennifer Armour, Jeremy Isabella, Paul S. Tracey, Debra Garza, Alina Golovlyova, Inna Belikova
Director: Petr Jakl
Screenwriters: Petr Jakl, Petr Bok
Producer: Petr Jakl
Executive producers: Rob Cohen, Joe Lynch, Luke Rivett
Director of photography: Jan Suster
Editor: Matous Outrata
Music: Karel Havlicek
Rated R, 89 minutes