Back in my high school days, I appeared as a supporting player in a three-act play about a haunted house. Now, this high school didn’t exactly have a grand budget with which to conceive, build, and execute the kind of stagecraft special effects available today; instead, it was an awful lot of tricks with the lights, the sound system, and some cleverly placed door hinges and the like. Even our no budget production managed to elevate a few heartbeats in the audience; and, if anything else, that effort gave me an appreciation of a single truth associated to what really frightens people – they’re more scared of what they’re thinking than necessarily what you show them.
Those same sentiments are near the narrative of GHOSTLIGHT, a ghost story written, produced, directed, and edited by Jeff Ferrell … who also appears in a minor role in the picture. (Go figure!)
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Andrew wins a radio contest to spend one night alone in a theater on the 80th anniversary of the bloody murder/suicide that occurred within its walls. His prize: $50,000. The catch: the theater has been reportedly haunted since the tragedy 80 years ago and is plagued by a series of mysterious deaths in the years since …”
That’s likely all one needs to know in order to decide whether or not a story like GHOSTLIGHT even interests you. The plot synopsis caught my attention; after all, who doesn’t love a good ghost story, much less a ghost story crafted around a big, bad haunted theater? As one who spent a few years in the dark places backstage as well as under the lights, let me assure you that theaters can be incredible unnerving spaces. They’re meant to look one way (for a specific production), and then they’re refashioned to appear as if something entirely different for the next. Plus, there are a myriad of places above and below – corners where lights and equipment are stored in the tiny, makeshift crevasses – that also test the senses. Needless to say, GHOSTLIGHT had some solid potential.
Sadly, it doesn’t quite deliver as many big scares as I thought it would. Part of the drawback is that the story as conceived and written by Ferrell requires an expansive set-up: the first 40 minutes of a 90 minute feature is almost exclusively background detail, much of which gets ‘speechified’ by the verbose owner of the haunted venue. Dennis Kleinsmith – as the curiously named Mr. Black – has a terrifically theatrically voice so he does great things with what’s written in the script; however, there’s just too much there – some of which could’ve been excised – to maintain interest while you’re waiting for the frights to begin.
Still, Ferrell’s script makes effective use of old and new tragedies (the lead couple are plagued with the recent loss of a child, a fresh-faced urchin who keeps appearing to the troubled mother played by a lovely Lisa Coronado as Mira). He bookends his tale of the past and the present in more ways than one (there’s a screen-test film supplied by Mr. Black that re-examines the original actors’ time in the limelight as well); and the end result is a trip rich in detail (maybe a bit too much) but a bit too morose for its own good.
The ending is a bit predictable – possibly more so if one’s familiar with classic ghost tales – but the journey to get there isn’t half-bad. If you can make it through the set-up, then you’re in store for some supernatural mischief.
GHOSTLIGHT (2013) is produced by Morella Films. DVD distribution is being handled by Brain Damage Films. As for the technical specifications, this is one sharply produced independent feature, and all involved ponied up some of the smartest sights and sounds possible for those seeking to be scared silly. Lastly – if it’s special features you’re looking for – there’s a respectable supply, including a fairly extensive making-of documentary, an audio commentary, and a short film in the same vein. A good collection for those interested.
RECOMMENDED. Well-made but super, duper slow, GHOSTLIGHT is a bit of a throwback to the days of the classic ghost story. This isn’t about CGI-infested scares; it’s old-school in-camera trickery along with shadows and plays of light. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the script began life as a stage play as there’s an awful lot of chattiness to the first half that gets dialed back in the latter.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Brain Damage Film provided me with a DVD copy of GHOSTLIGHT by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.