Commonplace tropes became iconic because they have proven their effectiveness and are so ubiquitous that the audience will instantly understand what is being conveyed. These became cliches when used as a lazy shorthand for stock characters or situations, with no thought put in them beyond that. Then there are those movies which aim to subvert or twist these cliches into something new by going into unexpected territory. When this goes smoothly, a masterpiece like Cabin In The Woods is unleashed upon the world. When the ambition is there, but the cliches aren’t reinvented enough to become something new, you must be watching the new haunted house/ possession movie Ghost Witch. To best understand how this ambition both hinders and helps Joseph Lavender’s feature-length debut, a full synopsis is required.
“Talent and ambition characterize much of their storyline…”
At a high school party celebrating the end of the school year, angry jock Oscar (Sammy Harley) harasses nerdy Zeke (Chase Steven Anderson) and throws him in the pool, laptop bag and all, as a prank. But then Oscar’s sister, Mattie (Mandi Christine Kerr), helps Zeke out of the pool and gets him some dry clothes to change into. She also gives him her laptop to replace the one her good for nothing brother destroyed when it was launched into the pool. As Zeke is looking the computer over he notices that Mattie also reads his favorite paranormal news site, which they excitedly chat about. Mattie tells Zeke about a house her dad owns but has done nothing with because it is supposedly haunted by Seven Toe Maggie. The significant others and some close friends, all of whom are interested in the paranormal, go to the house to discover the truth of its odd happenings. The group then runs afoul of an older gentleman who exposits at length about the legend behind the house. This man, Jenkins (Pete Ganas), hits all the notes one would expect from this horror movie archetype. Speaking in vague, bold, threatening declarations, while warning about the dire consequences of staying at the house and meddling with the ghost of Maggie. Of course, he knows more than he lets on. Who will make it out alive? Did Mattie con her friends into investigating the house by withholding information from them?
The generic, bland shorthands utilized to designate obvious jerk jock, obvious nerd, cute shy girl, and the oddly cryptic but ultimately good old guy are upended by unique twists or original uses of the same boring character types; such as when Jenkins saves the day by bargaining with Maggie who has possessed Mattie. The sacrifice required and the rather intense culmination, eschewing all ideas of a happy finale, is ingenious. It is a fascinating turn for a character whose previous scenes saw him yell at the kids, so of course, they found him off-putting and vaguely weird. However, the efforts to subvert all the cliches don’t always work. Oscar is in one scene from the beginning where he is a brute and is never seen again.His entire contribution is to get the two leads to talk. But Mattie is the one that invited Zeke, so they clearly already know each other. Oscar could have been written out, Mattie and Zeke getting together could have been set up differently, and nothing about the plot would change.
“…cliches aren’t reinvented enough.”
Then there is Maggie’s formulaic backstory. Her enraged and jealous husband kills her because she fell in love with someone else since the husband is an angry person. It is a story that has been told so often there are cave paintings depicting similar situations. It is boring, to be honest. But it leads to a brilliant conclusion that leaves Mattie, a relative to Maggie, which is beautifully revealed, no longer sure what is real or who she is. To spoil more would be unfair to the movie, but the attention to detail for the way that is handled versus the tedium of the ghost’s rationale seem to be at odds with each other.
Ghost Witch is the only feature-length screenplay from Jarrod Musselwhite and Joseph Lavender, who also directs. Talent and ambition characterize much of their storyline, and the dialogue feels natural. There is tonal confusion caused by the reliance on some cliches and total flipping of others. As such, any conceit, no matter how oft repeated elsewhere, is not instantly written off by the viewer. Given how brilliantly some of the cliches are deconstructed, it can’t help but feel like a disappointment when not every stereotype gets that same inventive treatment.
“…has grand ambitions, creepy moments, admirable acting, and an exceptional ending.”
Lavender is a skillful director with an eye for elegant, subtle camera moves intended to unsettle the audience. It often works, as the film packs plenty of creepy and frightening sequences. When Mattie gets possessed by Seven Toe Maggie, it is violent, intense, and the audience genuinely feels for the character. Lavender was also one of three cinematographers and one of the two editors. Given the movie’s impressive pace and lighting, Lavender’s love for the project is readily apparent. An eerie sequence is shot, so a mirror appears alive, unnerving the friend in the bathroom.
On the acting front, things are very satisfactory. Chase Steven Anderson is quite likable and sells the drama and romance side of things expertly. Mandi Christine Kerr is even better, pulling off a tricky role with grace and charm. When she does become possessed her physical movements look unnatural and unnerving in a way that genuinely suggests an otherworldly entity. Ganas is credibly threatening when his character is meant to appear unhinged, and when the scene calls for it, he delivers an emotionally moving monologue that is a testament to his skills. The rest of the cast is capable, providing empathy for their characters and selling the horrific elements believably.
Ghost Witch doesn’t go quite far enough in how it usurps basic horror conventions, making some scenes pointless or awkward. Still, it has grand ambitions, creepy moments, admirable acting, and an exceptional ending.
Ghost Witch (2017) Directed by Joseph Lavender. Written by Joseph Lavender, Jarrod Musselwhite. Starring Chase Steven Anderson, Mandi Christine Kerr, Pete Ganas, Sammy Harley, Christina Pykles, Josh Sinyard.