I love me a good period horror film, and I particularly love those set on the American frontier, and while Ghosts of the Ozarks isn’t *technically* frontier territory, there was a down-home charm the trailer gave off that made me want to give it a chance. These films place horror in expansive, yet isolated worlds without the knowledge and connectivity that make modern horror much harder to work around. There exists a folkloric nature to period horror that feels cleaner and simpler than trying to reinvent the wheel updating horror to our ever-changing world. Why do you need to reinvent the wheel when everyone was taking cocaine cough syrup for colds and hallucinating from botulism-riddled canned goods? The horror simply writes itself, and we haven’t even gotten to introducing elements of the supernatural to these superstitious zealots. It’s kind of an easy way out in horror writing if you can get the history right.
So why doesn’t Ghosts of the Ozarks get it right?
James McCune (Thomas Hobson) is a Civil War medic-turned-physician called to serve in the small town of Norfolk, Arkansas, by his uncle, the mayor Matthew McCune (Phil Morris). While lacking backstory on the fate of the previous town’s doctor, James settles into the insular, eclectic town nicely, making friends with the townspeople and offering far more advanced medical care than ever seen in town. As time passes, James begins to notice strange occurrences beyond the town walls, where the townsfolk dare not venture to, and discovers the seemingly perfect town he arrived into to be filled with secrets with a sinister presence in the woods watching.
Listen, I don’t mean this next statement to sound purposefully shady or mean-spirited, but I have to get it off my chest: If The Hallmark Channel made horror films, I suspect that Ghosts of the Ozarks would be exactly the type of film that they would produce. There’s an almost mind-numbing quality to it that almost makes it feel comforting as a film you’ve seen a million times before, but the second you turn your brain on to watch what’s unfolding in the light of day, there’s nothing original or engaging underneath the surface.
In fact, while the film’s slow start makes you think that it’s leading you into something exciting, if a bit rough around the edges, what unfurls is almost a direct knockoff of both Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village to a concerning degree. Inspiration exists in all forms of art, but there’s a limit that exists before you begin to find carbon copying in play. While I wouldn’t go so far to call Ghosts of the Ozarks a carbon copy of anything, the sheer lack of anything I specifically hadn’t seen before in other, better films was frustrating to say the least.
And to simply add insult to injury, the film simply is not scary. While some fault lies in the unoriginality of the whole thing, the other element lies in how cheap the whole film feels. Low budget horror is not a rarity, but there are ways to skirt around low budgets to create something that transcends monetary value. The frustrating part with Ghosts of the Ozarks specifically is that there aren’t a bevy of visual effects that would drain the film’s already low budget to lend the film to look like this, it’s just shallow production design, strange cinematography, and a clunky screenplay that bring it to TV movie levels.
There are occasional moments of genuine chemistry between cast members that lead me to believe that those in front of the camera were truly doing their best with the material, but these moments are fleeting in the grand scheme of things. Hobson is a quite capable lead, and with a better screenplay that more effectively utilizes his talents, he could deliver something powerful one day. Hobson also has chemistry with the entire supporting cast, including the likes of David Arquette, Angela Bettis, and Tim Blake Nelson (we’ll get to him momentarily) that plays well, even if a bit shallow and uninspired. It’s solid work for something that seemingly asks for so little from the cast — except for Nelson, because I don’t know what happened here, but while his character is a likable, charming addition to the cast, his indecipherable accent took a character that could’ve added a layer of depth and legitimacy to this project and turned it into a caricature of unknown nationality. One second it’s Irish, the next second, it’s something from deep Eastern Europe, the next moment, it’s something Scandinavian…and there was no reason for it! There’s no plot point or character exposition that explains why he had to do this, but it sullies a performance from an actor who’s typically the most solid part of any project he’s in.
And I’ll give the score by co-director Matt Glass some credit in its subtler moments. Like most things with this film, it does veer into majorly silly territory as the film goes on, but when it’s not going completely hog-wild, there’s a haunting quality to its timbre that has the seeds of something great in there.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is simply a film that brings nothing new, interesting, or particularly competent to the table. Even as a low-budget, low-stakes horror film, its biggest sin is how blatantly the film takes after better, more interesting films without taking a second to at least try to conceal the fact it’s doing so. Then it has the nerve to not even poach any of the scariness of said films it takes from, leaving us with a film that’s as confused about why it exists as I am, and until The Hallmark Horror Channel becomes a thing, I’ll remain so.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital February 3rd, 2022.
For more information, head to the official HCT.Media website.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.