Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ghoul: Old Horrors Return to Ukraine

Andrei Chikatilo was an ardent Communist and a serial killer with over fifty confirmed victims. As a small child, he lived through the famine years of Stalin’s punitive collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture, so many have speculated the widespread suffering and rumors of cannibalism profoundly twisted his psyche over time. Ominously, just like the Soviet Russian Army, it seems the malevolent spirit of Chikatilo has returned to torment the Ukrainian people again in Petr Jákl’s Ghoul (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New Jersey.

Three Americans have come to Ukraine to finish their spec documentary on Twentieth Century cannibalism. Initially, it is not exactly Chikatilo’s story they have come to tell, but that of Boris Glaskov, a local man who was convicted but leniently sentenced for committing an act of cannibalism, while supposedly possessed by Chikatilo’s spirit. Through their dodgy fixer Valeriy and Katerina, a more trustworthy interpreter, they arrange to interview Glaskov in the spooky old farmhouse where it all went down. Naturally, he never shows, but for some reason Ina, the village “witch,” tagged along, thinking she might be needed.

By the time the crew realize Glaskov stood them up, it is quite late and everyone is rather drunk. Resigned to the situation, they resolve to spend the night there, so they can chase him down in the morning. Needless to say, a lot of weirdness happens that night. They do not necessarily remember most of it, but the cameras recorded it all. While they try to dismiss the psychic’s spooky talk, they will eventually accept her diagnosis of the situation—they will have to placate the vengeful spirit haunting the house if they ever hope to leave.

Reportedly, Ghoul had the highest opening gross for a horror film in Czech history. It is definitely informed by the tragic weight of Soviet history but some might find its use of archival images from the Great Ukrainian Famine to be problematically exploitative. One simply cannot picture an American horror film using photos of the Holocaust in a similar manner. Still, the Chikatilo and Ukrainian angles are what really distinguish Ghoul from the crowded field of found footage horror films. Jákl also skillfully utilizes some creepy sets and props, but that and the intriguing backstory are about all it has to offer.

In truth, the entire cast is pretty generic, but at least nobody stands out in a bad way. Perhaps Alina Golovlyova makes the strongest impression as the demure Katarina, but Ghoul is hardly a star-making vehicle. Rather, it is the eerie looking work of cinematographer Jan Šuster and the entire design team that earns the most props. Granted, horror connoisseurs have seen far schlockier found footage films, but it is disappointing Jákl started with such a genuinely intriguing premise, only to settle for so much mediocrity. Mostly just a standard time killer for genre fans, Ghoul opens this Friday (3/20) at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth, NJ.