An unhappy mashup of many horror tales, from “The Village” to “The Wicker Man,” “Ghosts of the Ozarks” has only a few moments that live up to its creepy title.
As you scroll past it on whatever streaming or VOD menu you peruse, you might be tempted by seeing that it’s a period Western as well as a ghost story. The presence of Tim Blake Nelson in the cast should get your attention, prompting you to ignore the fact that the rarely-more-than-middling David Arquette is also here, canceling Nelson’s presence out.
Don’t be fooled. There’s a lot less here than the credits promise.
A young African American doctor (Thomas Hobson), trained in the Civil War, has been summoned to post-war Arkansas where an uncle has been running a near-utopia. Uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) has mastered several “big city” amenities, including natural gas, which gives the people light and heat in their homes, making the white population more tolerant of African Americans than was normal in 19th century Arkansas.
Then again, we only have Uncle Matthew’s word for that. He seems to be the only Black man in town until nephew James arrives.
The first sign that this North Fork might not be the utopia it’s billed to be comes when Dr. James McCune’s horse bolts, just short of his destination. A fraught encounter in the woods ends with monstrous noises, a mysterious red fog and a murderous stranger muttering about “stones” is snatched into the dark. The doctor flees, finds a wooden wall and pounds on a gate. And as he’s welcomed, because he was expected, a local asks the only question that matters.
“You catch a glimpse on the way in?”
The saloon, restaurant and boarding house is decorated with paintings of ghosts. The blind proprietor (Nelson) might dismiss ghosts as “parlor tricks.” But the too-friendly local haberdasher and photo studio operator (Arquette) is less sure.
“This town, they treat these ghosts like some kind of religion.”
What comes out of the town mine? Why is the place walled, and how do those walls keep out “ghosts?” What is Dr. McCune’s “injury?” How is all this gas piped in? And how does a Uncle Matthew, a Black man, no matter how distinguished and accomplished, “run” a town like this in Arkansas in this day and age?
Other characters add to the background — the “hunter” (Tara Perry) who “knows her way around” outside the walls, the blind but almost supernaturally-skilled innkeeper’s wife (Angela Bettis) — but don’t help unravel the mysteries.
The plot has a sort of perfunctory pointlessness that may have you gesturing at the filmmakers and shouting at the screen.
The leads aren’t bad, with Hobson (who starred in the short film this is based on) a TV veteran, and Morris constantly-employed since his breakout as lawyer Jackie Chiles on “Seinfeld.” The bit players surrounding them range from bland to just plain bad.
But if you’re a Tim Blake Nelson fan, you may be lured into sitting through this indifferent script with directors whose previous feature film credit was a comic horror thriller titled “Squirrel.” And if you are, it’s not hard to see how Nelson himself was so enticed.
Nelson plays a variation of the Asian movie myth, Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. “Old Torb” can fight back with whatever’s at hand thanks to his bat-like hearing.
Torb speaks with a Germanic accent, and even sings in that accent with his “darlin'” wife (Bettis), a tune composer-turned-co-director Matt Glass cooked-up that sounds like an outtake from “Sweeney Todd.” It’s dark and morbid and somewhat anachronistic.
But “Ghosts” isn’t “Buster Scruggs” or “Old Henry” or even “Ozark.” It’s just a spooky period piece with some neat red fog effects, tepid dialogue and a mystery so slow to unravel, with so little urgency to it, that simply sticking with it to the closing credits might be the biggest test of all.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Thomas Hobson, Phil Morris, Tara Perry, Angela Bettis, David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson
Credits: Directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, scripted by Jordan Wayne Long, Tara Perry and Sean Anthony Davis. An XYZ Films release.
Running time: 1:43