Set shortly after the Civil War, Ghosts of the Ozarks is an expanded version of the 2016 short of the same name, and with some of the same cast. James ‘Doc’ McCune (Thomas Hobson, I’ll Be Watching) has been invited by his uncle Matthew (Phil Morris, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Officer Downe) to come to the town of Norfolk, Arkansas. He says it’s a wonderful place to live, a veritable Utopia, and they need a doctor.
But on his way there something spooks his horse and it runs off. Then he’s attacked in the woods by Micah (Scott Dean, 12 Hour Shift) who is fixing to kill him before something unseen pulls him into a strange red mist. He soon finds out that the woods around the town are home to ghosts, which is the reason the town is surrounded by walls.
The idea of a frontier settlement with walls to keep spirits, rather than hostile natives, out immediately made me think of another piece of American folk horror, Eyes of Fire. But Ghosts of the Ozarks is a very different beast. Rather than a small settlement there’s an entire town and the ghosts actually spend much of the film in the background.
Much of Ghosts of the Ozarks is centered on the town itself, its inhabitants, and how it’s run. There are some interesting people living in Norfolk like Torb (Tim Blake Nelson, Nightmare Alley, Old Henry) the blind innkeeper/butcher, his wife Lucille ( Angela Bettis, May, Toolbox Murders), and Douglas (David Arquette, Scream, Mope) a tailor who is intent on photographing the ghosts. There’s also Annie (Tara Perry, Fun Size Horror: Volume One) and William (Joseph Ruud, best know as Rowan in the WWE), hunters who live outside of the town and somehow keep the ghosts from their cabin.
Several reviewers have mentioned the racial elements in Ghosts of the Ozarks’ plot. And there is some of that present, James and his Uncle who runs the town are both African Americans and the rest of the townsfolk are white. But I found the themes directors Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, working from a script by Long, his wife Tara Perry, and Sean Anthony Davis were exploring to be as much political as racial.
Almost from the moment, James arrives in town we hear the residents, especially his Uncle, talk about “purpose”, “belonging” and “knowing one’s role”. There are also rules such as the residents not being allowed to leave town without permission, even during the day. Those who are found unfit for their purpose are cast out for the ghosts to dispose of. This is considered a small price to pay for living in such a safe and harmonious town.
The ideas making up the basis of Ghosts of the Ozarks are about how the government and society manipulate and control the population. Shaping their beliefs for their own purposes. By having James and Matthew come to oppose each other it takes much of the racial element out of the conflict. It becomes a more conventional conflict with some understandable, though not justifiable, racial motivation worked into it.
Unfortunately, this means there isn’t much time for Ghosts of the Ozarks to be the horror movie it claims to be. The film runs an overlong hour and forty eight minutes and it isn’t until nearly an hour and twenty of them have passed that the ghosts show up and play a real part in the story. They actually look more demonic than ghostly, but either way, they’re not something I’d want to meet in a dark forest.
I’m not going to spoil the film’s big reveal, but the ultimate revelation has been done before and is a massive, if not monstrous, cop-out. Ghosts of the Ozarks would have been much better played as a conventional drama. Its ideas would have been better served and it probably would have reached a more receptive audience. Instead, it’s an interesting film that falls short of its intentions.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is available on VOD and Digital platforms from XYZ Films. It will be available on DVD April 19th. You can check their Facebook page for more details.