Ghosts of War

The men are spooked

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.

Ghosts of the French family
Meet the family


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









The Signal

Brenton Thwaites in The Signal

 

Well, I loved this. A confident exercise in genre and genre misdirection that has the balls to invoke The Matrix, Close Encounters, and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. So, yes, it’s about aliens and a gigantic conspiracy and there’s a lot of white light bathing its clinical setups, and it cost not very much at all.

 

And the first bit of misdirection comes at the very first shot – a boy, a girl, his buddy, dappled sunlight, a piano on the soundtrack. It looks like we’re in torridly romantic Nicholas Sparks territory and we can only be minutes away from someone coming down with a terminal disease, especially as Nic, our lead, is on crutches, as a result of some not-entirely specified mishap – an injury? Cancer? Is he a soldier?

 

No, Nic’s a computer hacker, we find out early on, who along with his buddy Jonah has been delving into areas he shouldn’t and has got someone somewhere out in cyberspace very angry. None of this actually matters much, or seems to, because only a couple of minutes after this, the gooey proto-romance which morphed into a wannabe Matrix has changed again, into a haunted-house horror as the two guys break into a deserted house, and director William Eubank shows he’s also adept at making things spooky.

 

All a preamble. The film proper starts with Nic waking up from loss of consciousness in some aseptic facility, where everyone is dressed in hazmat suits and Laurence Fishburne is looming over him asking questions about “the signal”. The gist of it is that Nic, Jonah and Haley have been abducted by aliens, possibly, and are now OK, safe and sound, being looked after by the government, who are dressed like spacemen just as a precaution. Possibly, though explanations are thin on the ground. All the better.

 

This nightmarish vision of loss of control works better than I’m able to describe it partly because its cast is so good: former Home & Away heartthrob Brenton Thwaites is perfect casting as the fiercely intelligent MIT student Nic, a slightly more feral Channing Tatum with soulful eyes, a perfect profile, yet approachably blokey. A star, I’d be willing to bet. Underused Beau Knapp is also just right as Nic’s wingman, and Olivia Cooke brings what dignity she can to even less of a role for her, as the largely passive girlfriend.

 

Out on the ring road of stardom is Lin Shaye, who’s now become something of a go-to actor for wingnut roles (see Insidious), and does a magnificent few minutes as a local Christian fundamentalist who picks up the gang when they make a break for it.

 

As for Laurence Fishburne, he seems to relish rehashing a version of Morpheus, the glacial, slightly amused delivery, and the boom, of course the boom.

 

The entire film revolves around the true nature of Fishburne’s Dr Damon character, it becomes clear early on. And of course I’m not going to tell you whether he’s the good guy or bad guy. In fact to tell you any more than I already have – or that most of the film takes place in this facility, where there are a number of shocking reveals – would ruin everything. What I can say is that to that basic Matrix/Close Encounters/Cube mood board, you could add a bit of Attack the Block attitude and some of the dipshit conspiracy theorising of The Banshee Chapter, and that Nima Fakhrara’s Mogwai-esque soundtrack of Theremin squawks and aortal rumbles hugely contributes to the dread atmosphere that Eubank keeps alive right to the last minute.

 

And if there’s a lesson The Signal could teach other films like it – apart from “make sure you’ve got a good story to tell” – it’s to use special effects sparingly. That way they remain special. As is almost all of this film. Prepare to be amazed.

 

 

The Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014