NOW ON TUBI! Grab a six-pack of Shiner Bock and a Joe Ely western shirt as we head to Texas for writer/director Timothy Stevens’ well-constructed sci-fi thriller The Ghost Lights. Journalist Alex (Katreeva Phillips) arrives in Dallas for her father’s funeral, only to be informed by sister Liz (Madison Calhoun) that she is too late. Alex collects some cassettes from 1978 of her father, Arthur (John Francis McCullagh), in Terlingua, interviewing Mario (Billy Blair) about mysterious lights in the sky.
The tapes reveal that people have disappeared whenever the lights are seen. Alex decides to chase the story, as her mean old editor, Brian (Ryan Bijan), is breathing down her neck (been there, sister). However, she starts noticing a man in black (Timothy Stevens) following her. The closer Alex gets to the truth, the more she is pursued across Texas. What is the mystery behind the lights in the darkness way out west, and what forces are trying to keep it quiet?
“…the mystery behind the lights in the darkness way out west…”
McCullagh’s performance nails the style of the folks who do this perfectly, right down to the exaggerated self-importance and floppy hat. It may seem a little broad to the uninitiated, but if you have ever met one of these guys, you know the actor is actually holding back. Blair plays the part of the tired local to the hilt, bringing utter realism to the role. Phillips has the Cosmic Cowgirl stance down. She is saddled with the task of carrying most of the movie alone on the screen. Good thing Phillips has enough talent to carry it with one hand above her head, Breakfast in America-wise. It is fitting that Stevens plays the man in black, as he inadvertently brings a vibe of a Devo video to his scenes that add another jolt among many.
What really wows me about The Ghost Lights is how it wears its low budget with pride. At no time does it try to hide the financial depravity that dictates its structure. It is almost like a comic book with all the drawings being stick figures. However, you can still do a bad-a*s stick figure story if you have the right instincts, and Stevens has them. He makes all the right moves with the spare resources, getting you hooked on Alex with instant sympathy. The director then keeps the tension of the mystery up between the flashbacks and chases, holding and switching at the perfect times. This kind of work is part of the pay-off of reviewing movies in the indie sphere.
Texas is rich with its own distinct culture that is ripe for cinematic harvesting. And it doesn’t get much more Texas than sitting in a cantina in Terlingua over a beer and a smoke, talking lights in the sky. As such, I love seeing production value being added out of nothing but the good ideas of the filmmaker and his cast and crew. What Stevens, who also shot and edited the movie, pulls off here is similar to the feat Ulmer achieved with Detour, making a big something out of a whole lot of nothing. He also makes the wise choice not to overuse the VFX, keeping it exciting. The Ghost Lights is a fine example of the weird wonders that are shooting into the night sky in Texas.
"…wears its low budget with pride."