Studio: Brain Damage Films
Director: Jeff Ferrell
Writer: Jeff Ferrell
Producer: Jeff Ferrell
Stars: Brian Sutherland, Lisa Coronado, Dennis Kleinsmith, Russel Hodgkinson, Eden Campbell, Ramona Freeborn, David Crellin, Jeff Ferrell
To win a $50,000 prize, a man must survive one night alone in a haunted theater on the anniversary of a gruesome murder-suicide.
Winning a cash prize for spending the night in a haunted house is a horror movie idea that seems like more of a cliché than it really is. Other than “House on Haunted Hill” and a “Treehouse of Horror” segment, in which the Simpsons ironically have their best night of sleep ever, how many similarly themed films actually exist? Maybe it isn’t utilized more often because even though it sounds like a fun concept, “Ghostlight” shows that it can be a largely loopy one in a contemporary context.
Andrew is desperate for a cash infusion to ease the financial burden faced by he and his wife Mira. A $50,000 prize for spending one night alone in the haunted Everett Theatre is his answer. As Andrew explains to his wife, “it’s more money than we’ve ever seen in our lives.” Seriously? What do these two do for a living that they can own a home and raise a daughter, but $50k is enough money to change their lives forever?
Andrew is chosen as the (un)lucky winner of the contestant search and sets off to meet current theater owner Gideon Black. Mr. Black explains that in 1932, previous owner Reginald Crawford stabbed himself in the heart after killing his starlet wife Madeline and her lover, Eddie the theater organist. Now on the 80th anniversary of that notorious murder-suicide, Mr. Black wants Andrew to participate in a marketing stunt, even though a terrifying dream tells Mira that her husband might be doomed.
As far as promotions go, Mr. Black’s plan to drum up publicity for the crumbling theater is a pretty poor one. For starters, the contestant search is conducted through a radio contest. Did they still have those to this extent in 2012? Usually those contests are for concert tickets or a coffee mug. $50,000 seems like a big reward for what is probably a small listening base.
Advertising events must not by Mr. Black’s field of expertise. Neither are logistical arrangements around said event, considering that there isn’t even a camera or a press person anywhere in sight to cover the overnight stay. How is this promotion supposed to renew interest in the theater when there is zero exposure around it? Presumably, shaky details surrounding the setup can be cast aside under the assumption that Mr. Black certainly has some nefarious intent anyway. His name is Gideon Black after all, not Phil Neidermeyer.
“Ghostlight” has a fair enough framework to tell a competent ghost story. But it suffers from ambition that the script, cast, and technical limitations do not have the chops to fully back up.
“Ghostlight” highlights how much mood can be lost by shooting digitally instead of on film. The clean and crisp format is simply incapable of selling the style necessary for a gothic spook story. That includes the entire movie itself, but more specifically, a key scene meant to be a recovered screen test of the murdered songstress. Not for one second would anyone believe that the footage actually came from 1932, or even 1992 for that matter. An audience can meet a low-budget production halfway, but shooting in black and white and adding a film scratch filter in post-production isn’t enough to meet the criteria on the other half.
A handful of credibility issues like this weigh the film down. No disrespect intended to writer/director/actor Jeff Ferrell, but his character Eddie looks like John Waters without the mustache. The idea that a stage star would have a torrid adulterous romance with this gaunt theater organist is a tough one to get onboard with.
A greater distraction is an overinflated sense of melodrama that isn’t even necessary. Andrew’s wife Mira smiles exactly once throughout the whole film, wearing a perpetual frown or streaking her cheeks with tears the rest of the time. She sobs into the phone while Andrew is in the theater, “I wish you were here with me” as if her entire family was just wiped out in a horrible accident. It’s been an hour or two. Can you really not go one night without having your husband next to you?
Semih Tareen designs a well-composed musical score, yet it is better suited for a Meryl Streep gutwrencher about human trafficking in the Third World or something equally dire. The swell of tinkling piano keys as Andrew and Mira say, “I love you” before departing bears all the heightened drama of an Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart moment. And that is much, much more than “Ghostlight” requires.
Any potential for jump from the shadows scares are neutered by a script bent on telegraphing all of act three’s beats during act one. When Andrew spots a tailor’s dummy during his initial building tour, Bob the caretaker mentions that it is “just one of the mannequins from down in the basement. There’s a bunch of ‘em down there.” I guess we can count on seeing them again then? Likely with Andrew confusing them for real persons?
On that same tour, Mr. Black takes Andrew onto the fire escape and says, “the escape isn’t very sturdy and if you step out onto it, the doors will lock behind you. You won’t be able to get back into the theater.” At the same time, the viewer has all but pictured the inevitable scene that will assuredly come to fruition based on that information.
The dilemma in assessing “Ghostlight” is that it is difficult to come down too hard because filmmaker Jeff Ferrell and company put forth a sincere effort to make a classy ghost story. They come close enough to deliver a respectable production, although it is one that doesn’t have enough polish to earn a recommendation. From minor slips like a crewperson’s errant hand reflected in a mirror to bigger gaffes in overemphasized line readings, the component parts of “Ghostlight” are unable to achieve the broader goals that the movie has.
Review Score: 45