Friday, August 14, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Ghoul (2015)

[Beware of spoilers!]

Ghoul (2015) is a sort of “been-there, done-that” found footage horror film of contemporary vintage.  The Czech film from director Petr Jaki involves an America documentary film crew in the Ukraine attempting to shoot the pilot for a TV series called “Cannibals of the 20th Century.” In doing so, this film crew becomes involved in a terrifying supernatural possession.

Like many found footage films (such as Devil’s Pass [2012], for example), Ghoul blends some historical fact with its horror fiction. Namely, the film’s malevolent spirit is Andrei Chikatilo (1936-1994), a real individual known in the press as “The Butcher of Rostov” and “The Red Ripper.”  

Chikatilo killed approximately fifty-five people in the Soviet Union between the years of 1978 and 1990, and sometimes practiced cannibalism, biting off the tongues of his victims and chewing (and then discarding…) their genitalia. After his capture in the early 1990s, Chikatilo was executed in 1994.

Ghoul provides much background information on Chikatilo, and the details conform to known fact/theories about the killer, which is certainly a plus in terms of verisimilitude. These connections to reality give the film a boost in the categories of both plausibility and overall creepiness.

Also, the film’s plot-line might broadly summarized as an “Americans Abroad” type horror, which is 
a sub-genre I enjoy.  In this brand of film (think: Daughters of Satan [1971] Beyond Evil [1980], The House Where Evil Dwells [1982], or The Grudge [2003]), foolish, disrespectful or simply ignorant Americans transgress against the beliefs of their host country, failing to understand that reality doesn’t necessarily conform to their Western mores. That description fits Ghoul to a tee.

Despite such welcome touches, Ghoul’s narrative is still hopelessly confounding at times, zig-zagging from idea to idea in only quasi-coherent fashion. And although some scenes in Ghoul are genuinely scary, others -- like those in the woods, or in subterranean tunnels -- feel overly-familiar at this point.  Other found-footage films have handled these tropes better, and without so much narrative hemming and hawing.  

So Ghoul is a well-made, competent horror film with some fascinating and gruesome historical flourishes, but in the end, it doesn’t really blaze any new paths for the genre, or even, truly, distinguish itself from the found-footage pack.

“If it keeps going this way, it’s going to end up on YouTube like all my other crap.”

Three American filmmakers, Jenny (Jennifer Armour), Ethan (Jeremy Isabella) and Rayn (Paul S. Tracey) travel to the Ukraine to shoot the pilot for their proposed series: Cannibals of the 20th Century.

Rayn’s father has financed the shoot, and Rayne knows the production is his last shot at success in the movie-making business.

The Americans meet a Russian guide, Valentine, a beautiful translator, Katarina (Alina Golovlyova), and a Ukrainian witch, Inna (Inna Belikova).  Together, they will visit the house of a local cannibal named Boris. There, they plan to interview him about his ghoulish crimes.

When they arrive at his house, however, there is no sign of Boris.

Instead, the filmmakers find a kitchen table with weird markings on it: a hand-made witch-board.  On their first night in the house, they attempt to summon or invoke the spirits, with Inna’s assistance, but show disrespect for the process and the spirits themselves.

The next morning, Valentine has disappeared, and strange events begin to occur in the house. The filmmakers now have gaps in their memories, and footage they can’t explain, and don’t remember shooting. 

In the filling of those gaps, the filmmakers learn the horrifying story of one of Boris’s victims, Stepan Chikatilo, brother to famed serial killer and cannibal Andrei Chikatilo.

“Did they eat you raw, or did they deep fry your ass?”

Ghoul achieves much of its atmosphere from the real life milieu of 1940s Ukraine, particularly the town of Yabluchne. As the filmmakers point out, it suffered terribly under Josef Stalin’s rule, and endured a terrible famine for years. 

That is the historical context in which the real life Andrei Chikatilo grew up. As a child he faced starvation on a regular basis, and according to some accounts, his brother Stepan was cannibalized by neighbors at age four.

It’s a gruesome story, and yet importantly, it concerns very real human evil.  We see that evil both in terms of the famine (which Stalin orchestrated) and the murder of a child.  Did those evils result in Andrei becoming evil too?  It’s a question worth pondering.

In Ghoul, the historical Andrei is resurrected as a villainous, all-powerful boogeyman, a spirit (or demon) looking to be reborn, but the film provides many accurate details about the criminal’s real life and activities.

Ghoul also works moderately well-because it follows the pattern of transgression/retribution familiar in many horror movies. The documentary filmmakers are disrespectful to Inna and her beliefs, and dismiss the possibility of the supernatural until, finally, it is upon them, determining their destiny. For example, when the documentary crew tries to contact Stepan via a séance, one of the men jokes about the boy’s death and deep frying his “ass.” It’s an ugly side to these Americans: a kind of preening sense of superiority that hasn’t been earned. They soon learn the hard way that they are not immune to the dark powers that Inna detects.

But Ghoul, while under 90 minutes, often feels overlong, and not fully developed.  There are all sorts of weird twists and turns in the action.  For example, there’s the case of the black cat that can materialize and de-materialize at will, and move across vast differences instantaneously. When it first appears, it seems to be a Schrodinger’s Cat in reverse: disappearing after it is first perceived visually by the film crew (in a box in the attic).  Later, the cat attacks Ethan by the nearby barn, but shows up a second later disemboweled.  It was not clear -- at least to me -- how the feline fits into the overall story.

Similarly, the ghostly Chikatilo possesses incredible powers.  As a spirit, he can cause spontaneous bleeding injury in the American film crew when it attempts to escape Boris’s house.  He can selectively erase human memory too.  Andrei can also possess people without their knowledge, remotely shut down cameras in different locations at precisely the same instant.  Why, Chikatilo can even re-arrange matter, re-burying an entrance to a deep cavern and tunnel system, and so on. 

And yet the film asks us to believe that all the terror comes about because Chikatilo wishes to be re-born as a human.  My question -- as always -- in films of this type is, simply why?  If you could control people and the forces of nature as a spirit, why go back to being a mere human? 

Just to feed on living flesh again? 

Well, if that is the answer, it’s pretty clear from the film’s finale that Chikatilo can eat flesh as a spirit, when he possesses the living.  Indeed, this seems to explain Boris’s activities in the tunnels during the film’s climax.

As Ghoul winds its way towards a grotesque conclusion, all the plot elements should come together, but don’t quite.  We do realize the purpose of the scars that appear on Jennifer and Katarina’s bodies, and we realize why Chikatilo’s spirit has kept two victims alive for this long. We realize what purpose each serves.  But so much of what has come before doesn’t really come to anything significant, like the supernatural cat.  Or Katarina’s friend who is going to drive the filmmakers home, but mysteriously never shows up.

In short, the film’s plot seems over-girded with incidents that confuse or muddy the story’s point, which is surely Chikatilo’s resurrection attempt.

I’ve watched many bad found footage movies, and I don’t want to give the impression that Ghoul is one of them.  It is well-made, thoughtful, and careful about the history it uses to depict its supernatural story.  It’s just a little too loaded down with ideas that don’t come off, and with over-familiar imagery. 

By this time, being lost in the woods is a cliché (The Blair Witch Project [1999], Evil Things [2012]), as is the claustrophobic, subterranean tunnel experience (Mr. Jones [2013], As Above, So Below [2014], Final Prayer [2014]). And -- let’s face it -- we have met enough documentary film crews to last us a life time. (Frankenstein Theory [2013], The Taking of Deborah Logan [2014])

So Ghoul “cannibalizes” a lot of tropes, but doesn’t gain much power from them.  Instead, the movie works well-enough in the moment, but in the long-term doesn’t have much bite.

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