A GHOST WAITS (2020)
Review by Darren Gaskell
Jack (MacLeod Andrews) has a job which requires him to prepare houses for their next occupants once the previous tenants have moved out. On his latest project, he’s made aware that folks don’t tend to stay in this particular building for too long and he’s hardly started work on the place before odd things start to happen. Objects disappear, strange noises can be heard and Jack is plagued by strange, creepy dreams. Could the house be haunted?
Well, in a word, yes. Come on, that’s not a spoiler, just look at the title of the movie. Jack soon discovers that there’s a ghostly presence intent on driving him out of there, appearing to him as the spectral Muriel (Natalie Walker). Muriel has a long and remarkable history of scaring the shit out of pretty much everyone living that comes into contact with her but she hasn’t reckoned upon Jack, who will complete the job if it’s the last thing he does. He’s determined not to leave. Muriel wants him out of there. How is this going to play out?
If you read my previous articles about this year’s FrightFest Glasgow festival, you’ll know that I saw A Ghost Waits there and declared it not only my film of the festival but my film of the year up to that point, knocking Portrait Of A Lady On Fire from the perch upon which it had taken residence only the previous week. I’ve now watched A Ghost Waits again and, having seen it a second and third time, I can confirm that not only is it still my film of the year, I somehow love it even more now.
Shot in striking black and white, the look of the film contributes immensely to the story’s tone, with its wistful musings on both this life and the one after. It also gives the phantoms a classic, elegant presence (even when said phantom is throwing an unexpected and not especially time-honoured tantrum). If this had been filmed in colour, the strength of the script means it would still have worked well but the gorgeously mournful monochrome lifts the atmosphere and the settings to another level.
This is a movie about which you shouldn’t know too much beyond the basic set-up, otherwise it will spoil the absolute, unfiltered joy of discovering the twists and turns of the tale. This includes a highly amusing subplot which highlights the fact that you can never quite escape a certain level of bureaucracy, even in the spirit world. There’s no way I’m going to reveal how that’s woven into the yarn, though.
Yes, I’m at pains not to ruin your initial viewing experience but that’s not to say A Ghost Waits is a one-watch film. Far from it. Subsequent viewings serve to further validate the charm, wit and emotional thrust of the piece. There’s still a huge amount to enjoy in terms of the wonderful interplay between the characters, the knowing nods to those spooky house tropes – which A Ghost Waits rather brilliantly subverts – and the bittersweet dialogue, always treading the line between hilarious and hauntingly sad.
With most of the action focused on just Jack and Muriel, the bulk of the movie stands or falls on the strength of its leads and A Ghost Waits boasts phenomenal performances from the ever reliable MacLeod Andrews (from 2019 FrightFest Glasgow favourite The Rusalka, among others) and the luminous, mesmerising Natalie Walker.
Andrews is an immediately relatable everyman as Jack, someone trying to make sense of his lonely life and frustrated by the so-called friends around him who are too wrapped up in their own little worlds to truly reach out. In one sequence, he literally asks someone for a place to stay during a phone call and they completely ignore his request even though they’re quick to throw him the line that he can ask for anything from them, just before they hang up of course. Both pricelessly funny and poignant, it’s A Ghost Waits in a nutshell and there are many resonant moments such as this across the running time that will have many of us nodding in recognition.
As a result of the apathy of those around him, Jack plies his solitary trade, increasingly questioning just what his place in the world is, if he even truly has one. It’s in Muriel that Jack sees something he doesn’t seem to be able to find in the living and he’s intrigued by this. It’s certainly going to take more than coming face to face with a screaming apparition to break his resolve, which confounds the hitherto brutally efficient scare machine that is Muriel.
If you’ve seen any of Natalie Walker’s other performances then it might come as a surprise to see her as the prim, serious, business-like, buttoned-down Muriel but the role serves to demonstrate her incredible versatility as a performer. Her natural effusiveness and comedic talent are purposely restrained here but, as evidenced so many times elsewhere, the best comedians also understand what works so well in terms of drama. Muriel’s annoyance at Jack is both heart-warming and amusing, yet her long-hidden frustrations are achingly sorrowful. It’s a beautiful, nuanced portrayal. If she hadn’t already terrified you into fleeing your home and never coming back, you’d want a ghost – sorry, spectral agent (you’ll understand when you see the film) – like Muriel haunting the place.
The sparky, affecting back and forth between Jack and Muriel is a delight, with Jack keen to find out all about the fundamentals of the ghost world and Muriel growing increasingly curious as to how modern life works – well, she’s been out of it for quite a while. In fact, I would have been more than happy for the proceedings to stop dead while they shot the breeze for a couple of hours, I adored the two of them that much.
However, the plot does dictate that things come to a head, doing so in a stunner of a climax that is both heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time, with a splendid final shot that had me grinning from ear to ear while still blubbing uncontrollably from the previous ten minutes. Looking for an emotional rollercoaster? Climb aboard. Get ready to pretend you have something in your eye.
Scary, funny, sad, dramatic, romantic – A Ghost Waits is all of these things and more. Simply put, it’s not only the best movie I’ve seen this year, it’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. The last thing I expected on my first viewing was for it to land so perfectly with me and my couple of recent revisits confirmed just how special a film we have here.
Many filmmakers don’t achieve something this accomplished in their entire careers so the fact that A Ghost Waits is writer/director Adam Stovall’s feature film debut blows my mind and then some. And then some. It’s further proof that indie horror continues to be the place to find the most imaginative and unmissable of tales. I recommend A Ghost Waits with all of my heart and I hope you all love it as much as I do. What the world needs now is two things: for as many of you as possible to see this movie and for Adam Stovall to make another film.
Oh, and watch for the sequence where Andrews improvises a chat with a particular item in a bathroom.
Rating: 5 / 5 (I’d give it six if I could)