Ninja Film Review: Ghosts at Home

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Awix is the expert. For ridiculous opinions on cinema, you get me.

The Ninja Film Review: Ghosts at Home

Ninja filmmakers from olden times.
I Am a Ghost (2012)

Director: H.P. Mendoza
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

Director: Oz Perkins

Everybody loves a good ghost story, right? What's particularly nice about ghost stories is that they provide atmosphere in a low-budget setting. I mean, basically, you need to find an old house and fill it with actors in costumes. Make up a romantic story of love, loss, and longing. Add a curious ghost whisperer, something like that. You don't even need much in the way of gore, violence, or explosions. Most of the time, audiences will put up with a fairly slow pace, as long as the ghost tension is a-building.

It is probably not a good idea to spend most of the movie frying eggs, though.

I am frequently heard to comment in the middle of an indie movie, 'Ah, another $15.95 flick.' This is more of an appreciation than a criticism, as I don't care for big-budget pictures. I Am a Ghost was filmed using $10,000 raised mostly on Kickstarter. I read that $7500 was actually spent on production. Most of the money seems to have gone for old portraits from antique shops and other mood-setting decorations. The house looks like a B&B, only with fewer silk flower arrangements. Another major expense was poultry-related. I lost count of how many eggs Emily the ghost fried in that suspiciously clean-looking cast iron skillet, always two at a time. (She was handy with that spatula.) Unfortunately, every expense was spared in the costuming. Hint to costume makers: Don't ever run up a quarter-inch machine hem on the period dress the actress is going to wear on camera for over an hour. Just don't. The less said about the wig, the better.

Plot? You want a plot? Indie films are above that sort of thing. Oh, okay. Basically, I Am a Ghost is a story told from the POV of the ghost. I'll bet you guessed that from the title. You probably also guessed that Emily doesn't know she's a ghost. Not at first. The disembodied voice of Sylvia clues her in. Sylvia is a medium, although not a very good one. Although the movie is definitely not played for laughs, I predict chortling on your part, should you undertake to watch this. Which you might do. I Am a Ghost isn't terrible. You might find yourself remarking, 'Hey, all this routine and repetitive ghost behaviour makes sense. Maybe that's why I hear that thump from the attic every night around 3 am.' They're probably moving furniture.

Two sensitivity warnings:

  1. There is considerable full-frontal male nudity in this film. This is due to an annoying demon who is a key plot point, but not particularly pleasant to look upon. However, I applaud the actor's ability to throw himself into the part (and around the house).
  2. I Am a Ghost messes with your sense of time, although this probably wasn't on purpose. The film's running time of 76 minutes seems to stretch into near-eternity, making you sympathise with Emily, who has been frying those eggs for too long. My personal benchmark for overlong-seeming films is Strangers on a Train (1951), the 101-minute Hitchcock 'thriller' whose tediousness seemed to make it even longer than The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. You are warned, I have done my duty by this film.

Ghostly Conceit

The next ghost strikes me as being kind of conceited. Not only does Polly describe herself as 'the pretty thing you are looking at', but she tends to overidentify with any good-looking young female who enters 'her' house. This film is 87 minutes (seems longer), and has a slightly larger cast than I Am a Ghost: at least, you get to see a few more people, mainly Paula Prentiss, as the aged ghost-story novelist Iris Blum, Ruth Wilson as Lily the hospice nurse, and Bob Balaban as the pinch-penny Mr Waxcap, who's really just waiting for everybody to die so his foundation can have the house. Unfortunately, a larger cast does not translate into a more interesting film, because hardly any of the characters talk to each other at any time. Instead, they wander about aimlessly, muttering, discovering lost manuscripts, reading, writing, typing. . .

I began to wonder if this story wouldn't have been better told as a novella in Twitter form.

My quibbles about I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House:

A ghost with two fried eggs, with apologies to Charles Dana Gibson.

  • These young filmmakers seem to have little sense of period. Their films take place in 'The Past', a nebulous period that covers any time before they were born. The house, while lovely, was obviously built in the late 19th or early 20th Century. But the narrative insists it was built in 1812. I don't think so. Iris wrote her ghost novel 'in the 60s' – we see her typing away on a 40s typewriter. That's okay, I had a 40s typewriter in the 60s. But in the film's 'present', Iris is very old, ancient, even. In spite of this, Lily is dressed in a quite retro nurse's outfit. She's using a landline phone with a long cord, and the TV looks sort of 70s. . . oh, give it up. This ghost story takes place in 'movie time'. Which might explain the hat worn by the ghost, and then again, might not. Let's just say it's what they found in the costume cupboard and leave it at that.
  • Digital filming is fine. Not great, but okay. However, when will it dawn on filmmakers that we will be watching these digital masterpieces on flat-screen TVs or computer screens? That we will very likely not be in a light-free environment? Could they please stop filming all the key action scenes in the dark? It's hard to tell who's chasing whom. I actually leave the closed captioning on in the hopes that they will tell me who's still alive. Seriously.
  • Subtlety is a good thing in filmmaking, but if you lull your audience to sleep with repetitive activities, such as egg-frying or caregiving, it behooves you to clue them in when something story-changing is about to take place. Otherwise, they might miss it. This film belongs to what I call the Charlotte Yonge tradition of 'burying the lead'. Charlotte would bore you into skimming the next three pages of what looked like tedious landscape description. You'd start reading again with the dialogue, only to discover that you'd missed the Big Fire hidden inside one of the longer paragraphs. . . I blame this tendency on the part of Oz Perkins for the fact that I had to read the Wikipedia article afterward, just to find out why certain characters died.

The Bottom Line: Films from the POV of ghosts are not new, but they can be fun. These are not two examples of the 'fun' variety. I would recommend avoiding I Am the Pretty Thing completely: if you paid for it, you would demand your money back. I Am a Ghost could be an enjoyable film to watch with friends, depending on friends, time of night, and general state of sobriety.

Alternative Suggestion: Go watch the 1935 classic The Ghost Goes West by director René Clair. A US businessman buys his ancestral Scots castle and takes it home with him. The ghost who comes along for the ride is much more popular with the ladies than he is. . . there are jokes, you'll like it, and nobody fries any eggs.

P.S.: The illustration is by me, with apologies to Charles Dana Gibson. It's put here as a helpful hint to the filmmaker of I Am a Ghost as to what an 1890s costume should look like. Thank me later.

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