Written by William Drew
There may be an expectation if you’re reading this website that the films we’re talking about are necessarily horror. The title A Ghost Waits initially sounds ominous in an obvious sort of way. Ghosts are scary, right? What’s this ghost waiting for? What’s it going to do?
From the opening strands of the Wussy’s Yellow Cotton Dress intercut with Paranormal Activity style found footage of a terrified family fleeing a house during a haunting, it starts to become apparent that A Ghost Waits is positioning itself not as horror at all but sitting alongside, behind and underneath the genre.
The lo-fi filmmaking is reminiscent of something like Kevin Smith’s debut indie masterpiece Clerks. This isn’t just a question of the black and white indie aesthetic. It’s about a guy, Jack, who has a job to do and under far from ideal circumstances. While Dante Hicks cried out “I’m not even meant to be here today”, Jack is meant to work today (he’s a handyman looking over a house for the landlord); the trouble is he has nowhere else to go afterwards because of an infestation in his apartment. As the film proceeds, we realise that Jack doesn’t really have many friends so he quickly resorts to asking work colleagues if he can stay on their couches, without success. With nowhere else to go, he has no option but to sleep in the house he’s working on.
There’s an intimacy created in the realisation that, after the flashback to the haunted family, it’s just us and Jack now. We watch him check plug sockets and clean things and talk on the phone to people but he remains physically entirely alone as we gradually discover how alone he is in the world. Until he hears a voice.
It’s the entire premise of Michael Powell’s proto-slasher tour-de-force Peeping Tom that the most terrifying thing is to watch someone else be terrified and that premise is a core tenet of the entire horror genre. What A Ghost Waits does brilliantly is to allow Jack not to react as expected. It’s not that he is superhuman. Far from it. He’s not even particularly brave. He just has a job to do and he’s going to go ahead and do it. So, after initially freaking out on seeing the ghost Muriel, he changes his mind about running away. He does what nobody else has done (the reason every tenant breaks their lease, it emerges): he goes back inside.
After this coup, it would have been easy for the film to lose its way. But it takes an unexpected and ingenious turn. Muriel is deeply confused and frustrated by Jack’s reaction. Like him, she has a job to do. She is a “spectral agent” and her job is to scare people away from the property. When Jack asks her why she does it, she isn’t really sure. He then admits he isn’t sure why he does what he does either. It isn’t just for the money. It’s important to him to do a good job.
The film goes beyond subverting our expectations of a haunting and invents a whole bureaucracy around ghosts (“spectral agents”, as they prefer to be known). Though there is an initial silliness to the premise and the commedia-del-arte style makeup worn by Muriel and her manager, Ms Henry, everything is done with such conviction that the emotional truth comes to the fore and you find yourself routing for Jack and Muriel as you would in any great romantic comedy.
A Ghost Waits uses genre too smartly to be neatly categorised though. While the development of the relationship between Jack and Muriel is at its core, it’s very much a film about what it means to work and how that relates to our sense of purpose. Through finding each other both characters discover a sense of agency. It’s that agency that allows them to choose each other in the end and it’s what is so surprisingly moving about the penultimate scene. It is here that you realise the double-meaning of the title. A Ghost Waits is a statement of what is expected from the job: to serve, to wait, to receive instructions: the final expectation that is rejected here.
I am wary of using the word “charming” to describe a film because it always sounds slightly patronising. I will say that I find it difficult to imagine not warming to these flawed, brittle and funny characters though. It took me by surprise when I realised how desperately I wanted things to be okay for them. If the idea of an off-beat indie comedy with a supernatural twist appeals, this is definitely for you.
Rating: 4 out of 5