Film Critic Annabel Smith stands in No Man’s Land as she recounts the latest World War Two thriller from Netflix
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
Ghosts of War defies and fulfils expectations all within 95 minutes. It follows a small male cast, better known for Hollywood successes such as Pitch Perfect as they take on roles as soldiers sent to secure and maintain a mansion that was previously Nazi occupied.
The occupants currently pitching camp within appropriate stereotypical soldiers on film, with Brenton Thwaites playing the central character, Chris, who radiates the calm source of leadership that we’ve seen time and time again in war movies. However, Tappert (Kyle Gallner) and Eugene (Skylar Astin) seem to be the only ones with distinguishing stories. Eugene occupies the intelligence role, with a pair of glasses to visually reaffirm what the dialogue suggests – he knows it all. He drives most of the plot through his linguistic skill, with him easily translating the previous owner’s diary to garner information on the mansion.
Tappert, on the other hand, seems to be most tormented by the actions of his past. Our first introduction in the opening sequence shows his sadistic execution of Nazi soldiers on the approach to the mansion – one being Billy Zane – enabling an audience to become desensitised to the gore and brutality that follow in Tappert’s wake. Eugene highlights Tappert’s aggressive, even bloodthirsty nature through story-time with the other soldiers (again, he becomes the convenient source of information).
Nevertheless, the characters fulfil specific roles, making it easy to simplify the type of war movie it is producing; the bloodthirsty killer, the brains, the leader and the self-sacrificing Butchie whose minimal screen time makes you forget he was ever there. In a movie of bare dialogue and tense silences, Gallner’s performance (playing Tappert) manages to remain memorable and compelling, with a southern accent that remains distinctive but appropriate in this deserted setting of rural France. And although, Thwaites and Rossi offer decent performances as nice-guy soldier types, they become props, preyed upon by the ghost’s vengeance.
An action scene with fifty Nazi soldiers within the middle of the film does provide some much-needed excitement to a film hanging with suspense. Considering the characters spend a lot of time in silence, treading the mansion silently before the next jump scare, this action break was refreshing and allowed the narrative to confirm the ghostly presence and see it in full force.
Throughout, it is clear the film embraces cliché horror tropes. Pale ghostly faces, the use of sound effects (whether it be a creaky door or some white noise), and a multitude of unjust murders allow the audience to be led to false expectations. These horror conventions and easy jump scares offer a slightly scary, if forgettable film. So, when a disjointed narrative begins to unfold, followed by a modern-esque room of medical equipment, you are left second-guessing everything you’ve seen. The climax splices together these two different wars (the modern versus the 1940s), shaking up what seemed to be a typical ghostly horror set in WW2 and shifting the established identities of the characters. Tappert becomes sympathetic, Butchie transforms into a more heroic memorable figure, and the white-washed ghostly figures from the mansion become an Afghani family who have been assisting American soldiers. Their torturous deaths, whilst the American soldiers lay in wait, quickly transform a horror into a tragedy.
It is clear the WW2 narrative enables an avenue to explore the rawness of the Afghanistan war and specifically Chris’s (Brenton Thwaites) guilt. The clear enemy within Nazi-occupied France coupled with the character of Tappert enables a passage into the consequences of war, even if the message is quickly skimmed over.
The quick editing and poor CGI, coupled with the rushed ending, leaves a take on PTSD and complicity that is too brash to hold any real value. The soldiers have created a world in their victimhood. Despite it having punishing, haunting effects, they are clearly the ones we root for throughout. And, even though they wanted to intervene, and the families’ death lay in their subconscious guilt, it is executed in a fashion where Thwaites’ character remains our primary focus, despite the intrigue cemented around the family earlier.
The few minutes of sci-fi are rash and when the ending scene occurs, with a repetition of the starting shots with Thwaite’s character reawakening to the same nightmare and the ongoing motif of a lit cigar in the distance, all horror effects are foregone and you wonder, ‘did I just imagine Billy Zane in this film?’
It was a surprising, genre-bending take on a plethora of WW2 movies that lacks feelings of accountability and criminality on both sides of the fence. Tappert is a dark, sadistic character traumatised by the past. The ending, although tragic, didn’t strike home because all along we’d believed this family were inflicted by a whole other war, vengeful spirits to any soldier passing through regardless of their allegiance. Yet, this family were completely innocent, only assistants of an American group whose inaction caused their torturous deaths.
The lack of sensitivity when discussing war victims and trauma, and the lacklustre attempts at scaring its viewers means Ghosts of War fell short of being a satisfying ghostly horror with any meaningful messages. Yet, the editing, performances and interesting take on a war film didn’t leave me regretting the watch.
Ghosts of War is available to stream on Netflix now.