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31 Days of Halloween: Ghoul

Published Tuesday, October 26, 2021 at 11:37pm

I've made a terrible mistake.

Well, okay, it wasn't that bad, but I made a poor viewing choice. I knew it was poor as I was making it, made it anyway, and saw it through. That sounds like I'm bragging about standing by my choice. I'm not.

I tried to watch The Ghoul, an early Boris Karloff film from 1933, but my copy is... not good. While looking for alternatives, I found that Plex is offering Ghoul from 2015 for the low, low price of a handful of commercials. Even if the movie was bad, it sounded like a fine trade. Immediately I could see that it was a found footage movie. I should have stopped there, but I didn't.

As has been well-documented in the past, found footage and I do not have a good relationship. I like The Blair Witch Project for its Lovecraftian influences and the fact that it got there early, and I like Cloverfield as an example of what the genre can do with a big budget, but they're usually made on a low budget by talentless directors who couldn't secure better financing. If you're a found footage fan and find yourself disagreeing with that sentence, then I don't think you're considering just how many found footage movies exist. They are legion, and good ones are the exception, not the rule.

Anyway, in Ghoul a team of three documentary filmmakers have traveled to Ukraine to make the pilot for a documentary series in a desperate attempt to make something with distribution beyond YouTube. Their subject? Cannibalism. Specifically, the cannibalism that occurred during the Holodomor, a partly-avoidable famine that took place in 1932 and 1933 and which is considered by many to have been an act of genocide. Pretty horrific stuff, and true.

The locals point the filmmakers in the direction of Boris Glaskov, an admitted modern cannibal. Glaskov has agreed to an interview in a secluded farmhouse which just happens to be the site of multiple murders by Andrei Chikatilo, an actual serial killer active between 1978 and 1994. They hire a translator, a guide, and a psychic to come with them. Possible that I missed the explanation of the psychic, but I believe the guide insists on bringing her to contact Chikatilo.

Boris never shows up, but while exploring the farmhouse they discover a scrying board scratched into the kitchen table. They try a seance to no obvious avail before vodka comes out, and the next morning everyone's memory of the previous night is fuzzy. They discover footage that no one remembers shooting, and their guide is missing. The psychic thinks he's dead, but the Americans think he's fine and she's in on it. When night falls, things really start happening; the glass they're using as a planchette zooms around the scrying board, and they're pretty sure the guide is still around and messing with them.

Look, this is a found footage horror movie, so you can safely assume that the guide is dead. You can also safely assume that the plot is going to jerk us around for another hour before it ends in an underground tunnel with Chikatilo's spirit possessing the female characters in an attempt to be reborn. In the meantime, there's a lot of blood, a lot of possession, a mutilated cat, and a lot of running around in the dark punctuated by jump scares and (in my case) Amazon commercials aimed squarely at middle-aged women.

There's nothing here that hasn't been done before in better movies, and even those movies didn't impress me very much. It's not that it doesn't succeed in its ambitions, it's just that they're aiming so low that when they succeed, it's not worth celebrating.

I should point out, though, that Ghoul was made by Czech actor and filmmaker Peter Jákl, and that it was financially successful in the Czech republic. I'm not sure if this type of story especially appeals over there, or if it's just a matter of Supporting the Local Boy (see: Australia's obsession with Young Einstein). Either way, I never know how to feel about this sort of thing; the Holodomor was a real and terrible tragedy, as was Andrei Chikatilo's career as a serial killer. It feels disrespectful to build a basically-disposable horror film around real tragedies that affected people who are still living today. Admittedly, I barely bat an eye when the Holocaust is exploited for a movie, but I think that's because I've known about the Holocaust since elementary school and it's hard to wrap your mind around an atrocity of that scale.

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