In 2004, first-time director Eric Bress gave us “The Butterfly Effect.” While not beloved by film critics at the time, the film has since found its audience and achieved somewhat of a cult following. It would go on to make nearly $100 million at the worldwide box office against just a $13 million dollar budget. While the star power of a young Ashton Kutcher certainly helped boost the numbers, it was a certified hit all around.
That was 16 years ago, and Bress has yet to direct another film – until now. But after “Ghosts of War,” maybe that hiatus was a good thing.
“Ghosts of War” follows five American soldiers assigned to hold and safeguard a French chateau near the end of World War II. Instantly, the film does a nice job establishing its real-world setting, beginning with a can’t-miss splash page informing audiences that we’re in Nazi-occupied France circa 1944. As the group makes its way across the beautiful French countryside, Bress gives audiences a first-hand look at who these characters really are in a visceral fashion. The unit, led by Lt. Goodson (Brenton Thwaites), has all the usual hallmarks you would expect after taking War Movie 101. There’s the earnest Eugene (Skylar Astin), the meathead, Butchie (Alan Ritchson), the straight-laced Kirk (Theo Rossi), and the wild card, Tappert (Kyle Gallner). The crew encounters Nazi soldiers and quickly dispatches them in sadistic fashion. The violence is brutal and bloody – these men have been through hell.
Luckily for them, their newest objective seems like a vacation compared to everything they have witnessed so far. Babysit the Chateau until their replacements relieve them, easy enough. Their excitement increases once they set eyes on the vast estate – it’s a beautiful, sprawling manor. Another American crew is there waiting to be relieved, too, and they are all too enthusiastic about leaving. It’s at this point that the World War II drama becomes a straight-up haunted house film. This does sound like a really fun idea, and it might work with a different film, but the execution from this point in the movie deteriorates in quality quickly. Even the last gasp of a plot in the final 20 minutes is laughably absurd.
If we’re looking for positives, though, the chateau itself is a great set piece. All the various rooms and hallways look very “lived in” and appropriate for the period, perfectly fitting for a house that may or may not be haunted. The first night ramps up the tension, with each soldier experiencing something paranormal. A shadow barely in frame, footsteps and things that go bump in the night. The group discovers a diary (how convenient!) that belonged to the owners of the house, revealing the horrible deaths that became them at the hands of evil Nazis.
As the ghosts become more sinister, the film falters. All the familiar trappings of the genre play themselves out. There’s no true fear here, just cheap jump scares reduced to lunging ghosts and well timed musical stings.
Everything leading up to the crew’s arrival at the manor is exceptional, though. The cinematography from Lorenzo Senatore is quite beautiful, and the dynamic lighting and visuals really emphasize the surroundings. There is definitely something to be said about the competency of the crew involved, but unfortunately, that did not last long.
Bress – who also wrote the script – wants to equate the horrors of war and the psychological degradation with being haunted by ghosts. The sentiment is there, but the balance is off. The tonal shift between full on horror and the third act – when he tries to make a big political and moral statement – are so jarring that the end result is a muddled mess that fails to highlight anything he is trying to bring to our attention.
Do not be fooled by the ending, it is neither clever nor insightful. Perhaps there is a reason we did not see a film from him in nearly two decades.
“Ghosts of War” is available to rent on video on demand platforms beginning July 17.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.