Ghosts of War is part of a recent wave of war movies with a supernatural flavour, slotting neatly alongside the likes of 2018’s Overlord (a funny macabre “Nazis do the weirdest things” near-miss produced by JJ Abrams), Frankenstein’s Army (a knowingly ridiculous 2013 film in which, at one point, one of the Baron’s descendant attempts to splice together a communist and Nazi brain). And Dead Snow, which featured Undead Nazis and had one of the best taglines of recent years – “Ein. Zwei. Die”.
Before launching its assault, writer/director Eric Bress’s film takes time establishing its bona fides as a proper war movie. Normandy 1944, a group of five soldiers are on a take-no-prisoners mission to relieve a detail who have been housesitting the former local HQ of Nazi high command. When they get there, the guys they’re relieving seem inordinately eager to get away.
It’s a vast and beautiful chateau, once owned by a French family since brutally murdered by the Nazis. Bress takes time giving us a tour of the building and introducing the guys. Brenton Thwaites plays Chris, their handsome and thoughtful leader. Alan Ritchson is Butchie, the strapping philistine of the group. Theo Rossi is the dependable Kirk. Kyle Gallner plays Tappert, the one who pulls the gold teeth from dead Nazis’ mouths and who you’re glad is not on the enemy’s side. Finally, Skylar Astin is Eugene, the piano-playing cultured one who drinks Earl Grey tea.
So far, so war movie. And then funny things start happening – at first bumps in the night, nothing more. But aided by Michael Suby’s screeching-strings soundtrack and some murkily moody lighting by DP Lorenzo Senatore, Bress begins transitioning us out of one kind of movie and into another.
A pentagram is found under a carpet, figures start to materialise and de-materialise willy-nilly. And then, in what feels like a moment of genre confusion, some actual living, breathing Nazis turn up and we’re plunged back into a scenario of bullets flying, limbs being lost and blood gushing from gaping neck wounds.
The genre-splicing continues. Tappert, attempting to theorise the supernatural goings-on with reference to his own favourite horror movies, starts singing the praises of I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Hang on a second, you might think, no one used the phrase “teenage” anything in 1944 and that film didn’t come out until 1957. Either someone’s made a boo-boo or something odd is afoot.
It turns out to be the latter, and in the film’s last third, which adds Billy Zane to the mix, things shift more and more into a hi-tech here and now so pointed comparisons can be made between US action during the Second World War and inaction in later conflicts. Afghanistan specifically, for the avoidance of doubt, where the busy narrative finally comes to rest on a family of Afghans whose fate looks like a replays of that of the French family at the hands of the Nazis.
And so an engaged and neatly conceived horror/war movie piles another genre on top and turns into a sci-fi/horror/war movie. Bress paints a heroic and romantic picture of fighting men down the ages and also does what most military organisations try to do – to present its soldiers as men linked with past and future brothers in arms in a military continuum. Less successfully, having painstakingly set out his stall in the film’s opening scenes, Bress waits until very late in the day to start declaring what he’s really about, and ideas and plot twists and new developments eventually start piling in on top of each other at bewildering speed.
Ghosts of War – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021