We open in Nazi-occupied France, 1944.
Five American soldiers - meathead Butchie (Alan Ritchson), fresh-faced leader Chris (Benton Thwaites), techie Eugene (Skylar Astin), wild card Tappert (Kyle Gallner) and initially nondescript Kirk (Theo Rossi) - wander jadedly through the barren French countryside, clearly road-worn and battle-weary. They're making their way on foot to their latest assignment: putting in a shift "babysitting" an old French chateau of historical importance, once commandeered by the Nazis, until an undisclosed date when their relief finally arrives.
As tired and emotionally worn out as these men are, exemplified by an early detour where they pick over the remains of a derailed German army jeep and callously enjoy killing off its injured inhabitants, they cling to the thought of the comfort and sanctuary that the chateau is sure to offer. "Clean sheets and toilet paper!" one of our troupe excitedly exclaims en route.
Upon arriving at the chateau a day behind schedule, it does indeed look very grandiose and welcoming. However, the soldiers they're relieving of babysitting duties can't leave the place quickly enough, even leaving one of their rucksacks behind in their rush to get the fuck out. Butchie and co are also curious as to why these men were sleeping in the mansion's hallway - the jittery response is "bedbugs".
Once they have the place to themselves, our protagonists scout their new surroundings before settling down for an evening meal. Their comfort is soon curtailed by the sound of footsteps from upstairs. It seems the chateau may already be occupied ... time for these guys to pick up their rifles and do a tour of the first floor.
They don't find intruders, but they do experience weird phenomena: unexplained noises, knocking down the chimney which apparently reads "I have no legs" once converted to Morse Code, doors swinging open by themselves. Tying in with the revelation that the family who previously owned the chateau were ruthlessly slaughtered in their own home by the Nazis, it's safe to say our protagonists are somewhat spooked. The guys resolve to retire for the evening, taking the beds upstairs but agreeing to remain within earshot of each other until they can establish "what the fuck is going on".
Their first night doesn't go without event. Periphery sightings of suspect presences, more odd noises and so on. It's enough for them to convene the following morning and raise questions about the logistics of staying put. Tappert certainly doesn't want to stay, but Chris insists they do.
A short while afterwards, Tappert and Eugene discover occult chalking on the chateau's attic floor. Creepy messages on their radio and more guttural sounds emanating from the chimney finally convince these lads that they're residing in a haunted mansion.
Their second night in the chateau goes no better. The place is attacked by visiting Nazi soldiers, leading to one of our protagonists being left seriously injured. The Americans manage to fend off their mortal aggressors, but more paranormal phenomena have left them gravely troubled by their predicament. Of course, this is going to have repercussions on their mental health.
Reluctant to leave their post for fear of being court-martialled, these troops determine to stay on at the chateau. Naturally, things only get weirder ...
Written and directed by Eric Bress (it's his first directorial credit since 2004's mildly diverting THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT), GHOSTS OF WAR is ... okay.
It's paced well, the lighting and cinematography are both spot on, and the editing is satisfyingly taut. Production values are good. The Bulgarian locations employed, doubling up as war-torn France, are often highly attractive. The building used for the chateau, the Bulgarian Vrana Royal Palace, is perfectly imposing from the outside and suitably ambient once inside. There are no flaws with the performances as such.
And yet, GHOSTS OF WAR can't quite lift itself out of feeling like a Netflix series condensed into a singular, albeit polished, 94-minute film. It has the sheen of a low budget film masquerading as a high budget feature.
The film's first hour has an intriguing build. Bress's direction of the action is assured and slick, even if our protagonists are too thinly fleshed-out to do anything more than remain somewhat faceless. The final third is going to be divisive. It begins by descending into predictably stock jump scares and J-horror tropes before concluding with a twist that some will love; others will have seen it signposted from an early juncture, and be left unsatisfied not only by how foreseeable this "surprise" ending is but also by how illogical it ultimately is.
Yeah, I can't say anything else about GHOSTS OF WAR other than it's perfectly serviceable, but quickly forgettable. You get a Billy Zane cameo out of it, if that means anything to anyone. Anyone?
Vertigo Releasing put GHOSTS OF WAR out on UK DVD in October 2020. Less than four weeks later, the film became available to stream freely on Netflix.
Netflix UK's presentation is proffered uncut and in the film's original 2.39:1 ratio. Shot on HD cameras, naturally GHOSTS OF WAR looks superb: pin-sharp, clean visuals; vivid yet true colours; strong and stable contrast; a satisfying depth to compositions.
English stereo audio is up to snuff too, while the optional English subtitles provided do their job nicely.
If you're really keen on the film, there's also an English-friendly blu-ray which has been released not too long ago in Germany.
For many, though, I suspect giving this serviceable but unremarkable film the once-over via streaming it on Netflix will suffice.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Vertigo Releasing|