I’ve got a bit of a soft-spot for historical horror. I find that the combination of horror elements and people and places that don’t really exist anymore to be hugely interesting. Especially when a story uses its setting to help enhance the horror, when the people involved don’t have the knowledge or understanding to think that ghosts or monsters shouldn’t really exist, and don’t have the technology to run away from threats. Ghosts of the Ozarks is a film that looked like it was going to be an interesting addition to this genre of horror, but became a movie that I couldn’t stop thinking about for days.
The story focuses on Dr James McCune (Thomas Hobson), a man who recently fought in the Civil War and has been recovering from his injuries sustained there, and trying to find a new life for himself. When he receives a letter from his uncle, Matthew (Phil Morris), inviting him to move to a new town as the doctor, James jumps at the chance to start afresh.
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On the way to the town of Norfolk, Thomas is approached by a stranger in the woods that surround the settlement. When the man attacks James a strange red fog descends, and the man is dragged into the darkness by some unseen force. Thomas runs to Norfolk, where he’s greeted warmly by the residents, but is informed by them that the woods are protected by the ghosts, and that they took his attacker.
As a man of science, James is unsure what to believe, whether he can trust what he saw that night and if he should believe the local legends. As he settles into his new role he discovers that his uncle didn’t quite tell the truth about Norfolk. Not only is the walled town living with a ready supply of gas thanks to the local mine, leading to prosperity, but Black people are treated equally, and Matthew is even the leader of the community. James realises that there’s something special about Norfolk, and begins to form some bonds of friendship with several of the local residents. But soon he starts to realise that there’s a darkness lying just beneath the surface, and it’s connected to the ghosts.
The first thing I thought when I finished watching Ghosts of the Ozarks is that I disliked that it was a movie, because this story would have made a great mini-series or novel, and I wanted more of this. I was also shocked that the film was only an hour and forty five minutes long, as the filmmakers were really able to cram a lot of stuff into the runtime without it feeling rushed or bloated.
Whilst the movie is a horror story not a lot of it focuses on the ghosts and the horrors that are happening around the town, and a lot of it is actually about James and his story. James is played wonderfully by Thomas Hobson, who gives the character a very layered and deep performance. He’s a man who’s struggling with ghosts already, albeit ones from his past. As a Black doctor in reconstruction era America he’s seen a lot of awful things, and had a lot of awful things done to him. He carries physical and emotional scars with him, and whilst he’ trying to find a decent life for himself and is approaching things with hope you can see the trauma lying just under the surface.
But this is something that’s not just centred around James, as other inhabitants of Norfolk have a lot of dark parts of their pasts that begin to come to light. Matthew speaks of the slave markets in New Orleans, of the violence done to his people, and how it drove him to found Norfolk as a place for all people, no matter what they look like. Torb (Tim Blake Nelson), the blind tavern owner, and his wife Lucille (Angela Bettis) sit somewhat apart from the rest of the community and never seems to really fit in. Hunters Annie (Tara Perry) and William (Jospeh Ruud) live outside the community, and despite keeping the people fed are looked at with suspicion. It seems like most people in Norfolk are more than they first appear, and trying to figure them out is a big part of the fun of the movie.
The film puts this focus on characters over the horror for much of the runtime, and there were moments where I was forgetting that this was a horror as I became engrossed in these characters and seeing how this community worked. And whilst I can see that some people who come to this hoping for a more intense and overt horror experience might find it lacking, or even go so far as to call it dull, I think that it’s been one of the more engaging and engrossing horror films that I’ve seen in a long while.
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Ghosts of the Ozarks also just looks beautiful. A lot of times with historical pieces if not enough care and attention gets given to the period details it can end up looking cheap or like those making it didn’t care enough. This film, however, looks great. You never once question the setting, and everyone looks like they belong in this time. Clothes are worn, people are often dirty, and the town of Norfolk looks lived in and aged. The night scenes in particular are great visually, with the use of flickering candles or oil lamps as the only source of lighting making for dynamic and sometimes beautiful moments.
I really enjoyed Ghosts of the Ozarks, and the more I think about it as time moves on since watching it the more I think I’m coming to enjoy it. I find myself going back to think about certain performances, or story points that I found interesting. I want to watch it again and to try and get more out of it, because I just want more. And that’s the only complaint that I have about this film: that it’s not bigger, that it doesn’t go on longer, and that my time with it has come to a close. Other than that, I absolutely loved it.
Ghosts of the Ozarks is out on Digital on 23rd May from Signature Entertainment.