Adam Stovall’s micro-budget flick, A Ghost Waits, makes a pretty convincing argument that romance and horror can work really well together. Stovall doesn’t simply juxtapose the genres or jump back and forth between sweet and horrific moments. Instead, he takes the time to explore the space in which romance and horror overlap. Most of A Ghost Waits is simply a fun and easy-going good time that doesn’t require you to think too much, but it’s also got a handful of breathtaking shots that will send chills down your spine (and it’s impossible to tell if those chills are the result of horror or romance). This surprising genre mashup makes the most of its limited resources, showing that craftsmanship and technique can go a long way when it comes to movie making.
Jack (MacLeod Andrews) is a handyman for a property management company. He’s pretty lonely (a fact made obvious by how much he talks to himself) and devastatingly underappreciated by his boss and friends. While working on repairs for a rental house, he quickly discovers why all the former tenants left so suddenly. The house is haunted by a self-confident, no-nonsense ghost named Muriel (Natalie Walker). For years, it’s been Muriel’s job as a “spectral agent” to scare away every single person who moves into “her” house. While Jack has pretty much the opposite job (to fix up the house so that more people can move in), the unlikely duo quickly form a bond. Of course, that bond is tested as it’s stretched between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and a good-old-fashioned lover’s dilemma ensues.
A Ghost Waits gets off to a particularly strong start with its genre-mashing expertise, opening with the sound of James E. Smith’s “Stubborn Love” mixed with screams of terror as Muriel scares away yet another family from the house. The initial sequence is almost like a narrative joke, toying with our emotions as it sets up the movie’s balance between romance and horror. It’s a memorable opener that stands alone as a lesson in establishing tone. With a handful of other catchy songs, the movie’s soundtrack is one of its strongest elements, adding perfectly timed tunes that bring style and life to the story beyond what we can see on screen.
After the impressive opener, the movie wastes no time in setting up the suspense that builds to Jack and Muriel’s first meeting. Director of Photography Michael C. Potter establishes space and presence in the beginning of the movie with static wide shots of Jack in the interior of the house. Similar to the “security camera” style of the Paranormal Activity franchise, these shots establish a tangible presence that seems to be just out of frame, putting us on the lookout for sudden movements or shadows in the tiny details of the house. It’s clear that Jack is not alone, but what’s unclear is whether that invisible presence is romantically intrigued by him or plotting to scare the shit out of him. The technique and skill behind this romance/horror tension is what makes A Ghost Waits really stand out.
This tension is brought to the forefront during what is perhaps the best sequence of A Ghost Waits as Muriel approaches Jack while he’s singing and playing guitar. Muriel hasn’t made herself visible to Jack just yet, so he has no idea that she is slowly walking towards him. With the camera just behind Muriel’s shoulder, the outline of her hair takes up the rightmost part of the frame. Soft and haunting sound effects overlap Jack’s romantic tune, making it impossible to tell if Muriel is about to enact some gnarly terror or if she’s approaching Jack because she’s attracted to him. For a second, Jack looks up as if he can see Muriel, but in a sudden release of tension there’s a reverse shot from behind Jack’s shoulder, and there is only empty space in front of him. It’s a remarkable sequence that seems to define what Stovall was truly going for with A Ghost Waits.
After a house-repair montage in which Jack hilariously ignores Muriel’s futile attempts to frighten him (a self-aware nod to the horror movie aficionado who has grown accustomed to the usual jump-scare tricks), A Ghost Waits really loses its mojo. While the shots in the first half hour of the movie are effective at creating suspense and showing us details about Jack and Muriel, the middle section gets too caught up in telling us details directly via dialogue. Although it’s a clever character quirk to have Jack talk out loud to himself almost constantly, his monologues become tiresome as he narrates each and every thought and feeling out loud (There are more effective ways to show the audience that Jack is tired than having him say it out loud to himself before bed). Similarly, Muriel’s “old fashioned” way of talking doesn’t really add a lot to her character. In one scene, she lays out the movie’s central conflict a little too clearly when she tells Jack, “You make it so the people come. I am the one who sends them away…Thus we are enemies.” A lot of the conflict in the middle section of A Ghost Waits is spoon-fed to us in this way, making the subsequent action feel cheap and predictable.
However, A Ghost Waits has an endearing charm that carries it through the shaky middle section to a much more nuanced ending, which satisfies us with the same horror/romance tension as the beginning. A Ghost Waits is an honest attempt at an original romance, and its simplicity makes it an enjoyable and easy watch. The moments of exceptional craftsmanship balance out the less subtle moments, making A Ghost Waits overall a pretty fun and feel-good time.
Available for streaming on ARROW February 1st, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.