Producers: D. Todd Shepherd, Shelley Madison and Joe Simpson Director: Eric Bress Screenplay: Eric Bress Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Skylar Astin, Kyle Gallner, Alan Ritchson, Billy Zane, Shaun Toub, Vivian Gray, Laila Banki, Yanitsa Mihaylova, Kaloyan Hristov, Shannon McKain, Nathan Cooper, Matthew Reese, Alexander Keshtkar, Dawn Sherrer, Alexandra Spasova and Amber Townsend Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Returning to feature filmmaking after a long absence (his only previous effort as writer/director was “The Butterfly Effect” back in 2004, though he also penned a couple of entries in the “Final Destination” series), Eric Bress offers a mash-up of horror movie and war story that strives mightily to be scary and clever but ends up being both tedious and, in the end, forehead-slapping silly.
“Ghosts of War” begins by telling us that the five-man squad of American soldiers headed by bland, straight-arrow Chris (Brenton Thwaites) and including stalwart, sensitive Kirk (Theo Rossi), bookish Eugene (Skylar Astin), brooding sharpshooter Tappert (Kyle Gallner) and beefy bruiser Butchie (Alan Ritchson) are in the French countryside of 1944 as Allied forces continue their difficult eastward push against the Germans. Their specific mission is to relieve another American squad stationed at an estate that had once been a Nazi command post, which the Germans might try to retake.
After an encounter with a detachment of enemy soldiers injured when their jeep is bombed—an episode that shows that these are battle-hardened men, prone to violence—and another with fleeing civilians (some dressed in striped concentration camp garb)—which demonstrates that they are equally given to kind gestures—the men arrive at their destination, where they find the troops they are replacing skittish and anxious to leave.
Why? Because, as the newcomers soon learn, the place is haunted. The former owners, the Helwigs, had helped Jews to flee the Germans, and perhaps for that reason had been dealt with especially cruelly by the Nazis, all four—father, mother, son and daughter—executed in gruesome fashion (one drowned, another hanged, and yet another burned alive). No wonder their spirits still lurk in the massive place, threatening whoever might invade it, first with relatively benign gestures like creaking doors and loud footsteps in the attic, and then with more frightening apparitions. They do come in handy, though, when a platoon of Germans shows up, only to be annihilated by Americans and ghosts working to a common goal.
Eugene has found a journal left behind by a German soldier that recounts the horrible story, and Chris concludes that the only way they can overcome the increasingly hostile actions of the spirits toward them is to find the family’s remains and accord them a proper burial. But the attempt does not have the effect he’d hoped.
The reason is that in the final half-hour Bress indulges in the propensity his previous scripts have shown for time-and-location shifts to fashion an explanation for all the goings-on that is surprising, to be sure, and even resolves some of the anomalies and anachronisms one might have noticed in the initial section of the picture, but on the other hand is so utterly ridiculous that it will probably have you shaking your head in disbelief. Billy Zane shows up as a doctor here, and his presence only adds to the grade-Z level of the supposedly amazing twist Bress has concocted, one not only ludicrous in itself but leading to a final scene that will inevitably have you muttering, “Huh?”
The five young actors do what they can with the feeble material, but apart from Gallner—who at least gets to deliver a grim monologue about some of his bad prior actions—none registers very strongly, Thwaites in particular coming across as stilted, while Ritchson benefits from the fact that his character is sidelined fairly early on. The movie, shot in Bulgaria, looks better than the script deserves, with Antonello Rubino’s production design and Lorenzo Senatore’s cinematography fairly atmospheric and Michael Suby’s score insistent about trying to raise the tension; the effects supervised by Zarko Karatanchev are okay as well. But editor Peter Amundson can’t do much with the lethargic first two acts and the goofy closing one.
One has to credit Bress with trying to do something different with “Ghosts of War,” but sometimes a more direct approach bears better results. In this case that means returning to Julius Avery’s loopy 2018 “Overlord,” in which American paratroopers face off against Nazi-created zombie soldiers, and Michael Mann’s spooky “The Keep,” from way back in 1983, in which German troops had to contend with a malevolent force in a Romanian fortress. Neither is a particularly good movie, but both are preferable to this one.