Thursday, 30 July 2015


As I've mentioned here at Hickey's House of Horrors before, I've a penchant for watching serial killer documentaries. Perhaps it goes with the horror fandom, but there are few movies as shocking and horrific as the real life actions of the most depraved men to prey on society.
Arguably one of the most vile of these would be Andrei Chikatilo, the Soviet cannibal who slaughtered more than 50 women and children during his reign of terror.
Now director Petr Jákl is looking to incorporate Chikatilov into the mythos of a horror movie. It may be seen as insensitive to some but if you are going to base a tale on a real life monster few were as diabolical as this source material.
So does this one leave a bad taste in the mouth? Or is this a horror flick with real bite?

GHOUL (2015)

Dir: Petr Jákl
Starring: Jennifer Armour, Alina Golovlyova, Jeremy Isabella, Paul S. Tracey, Vladimir Nevedrov, Yuri Zabrodskyj, Debra Garza, Inna Belikova

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk. 

Three American filmmakers, reporter Jen (Armour), cameraman Ethan (Isabella) and director Ryan (Tracey) have packed their equipment and headed to the Ukraine to film a documentary, Cannibals of the 20th Century. The group have chosen the locale after hearing tales of how Stalin's cruel regime deprived the population of food during the Thirties, causing a famine so terrible that some were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. 
Using what little funds Ryan has remaining, he needs this film to be a success, while his girlfriend Jen has a more pressing matter on her mind. However, local guide and driver Valeriy (Nevedrov) may well be offering the key to the film hitting the big time — a guaranteed meeting with suspected killer and cannibal Boris (Zabrodskyj). Boris has previously been arrested and imprisoned for his crimes, but his conviction was later overturned due to a lack of evidence. But the plot thickens when it emerges that under hypnosis Boris has since confessed to his crimes... and blamed them on possession by a demonic entity that forced him to murder and consume his victim.
Now, joined by timid translator Katarina (Golovlyova), much to the delight of a clearly interested Ethan, the group makes contact with Boris who agrees to sit down for an interview in the house in which the alleged murder took place, albeit for a significantly higher fee, paid in advance.
So, camera in tow, the filmmakers, Valeriy and Katarina set out for the ramshackle house in the countryside, forced to abandon their vehicle when the road becomes too treacherous and continue on foot to their destination, however now they are joined by local 'witch' Inna (Belikova). Valeriy and Katarina explain that locals may be a little reticent to speak with them unless they have somebody held in high regard in the community and the superstitious folk of the bleak Ukrainian countryside still hold a lot of faith in the old ways.
Upon reaching the farmhouse the group settle in and wait... and wait... and wait...
Boris doesn't show so the group eat a meal, then start to drink the large bottle of cheap vodka they discover in the cupboard. As the drink flows the group discover a large pentagram/ouija board carved into the wood beneath the tablecloth upon which they ate. Needless to say the group decides to conduct a seance to contact Boris' victim (despite Inna's warnings not to), then falls into a drunken stupor.
The next day the group awaken into a strange and foreboding atmosphere, Valeriy has disappeared and Inna warns them that now the group are trapped in a haunted house by restless spirits. At first sceptical, when they start to experience missing memories and strange, unexplained injuries the group is forced to accept that something terrifying is happening to them. Are they being stalked by a maniacal flesh-eater... or something even worse?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Easily one of the biggest positives that Ghoul has going for it is the grim and ominous sense of dread seeping out of every frame. Director Jákl and cinematographer Jan Suster ensure that there is a permanently overcast and drizzly feel to all of the external shots, the location work decidedly bleak, awash with storm-laden skies and dank mud. This builds a tremendous foreboding atmosphere and sets audiences on edge. There's also a real sense of isolation as our fish out of water main characters are thrown into a place where they don't speak the native tongue and, in a nice touch, it is only translated for us English speakers some of the time, leaving us as in the dark they are.
Of course achieving a suitable atmosphere is nice but doesn't do the job if the script and actors don't give us characters to care about. Thankfully the cast are all very good. 
Our three American leads are each great and bring a believability to the events that is so important when watching a Found Footage flick. I especially liked the work of Armour, a talented young actress who fleshes her character out wonderfully. 
I also loved the work of the 'local' actors. Nevedrov feels like he IS Valeriy, while Zabrodskyj instills Boris with a suitable level of creepy menace. The ladies also impress, with Golovlyova proving more than capable of handling the fourth main role after an introduction that leaves you sure she's cannon- (well, cannibal-) fodder. 
Belikova also does a sterling job, especially while delivering some material that could have seemed decidedly hokey in less assured hands. Some of her later scenes could have turned out disastrously but she tackles them with aplomb and really helps ratchet up the fear.
And that is ultimately what most horror movies will be judged on, the standard and sheer terror of its scares. And there are times when Ghoul totally delivers. The eerie mystery behind the characters' plight is unnerving and when the story starts to tie into the real life horrors of Chikatilo's reign of terror the frights hit a new level. Scenes involving mysterious scratches appearing on their flesh, Inna's slow turn towards catatonia and then something far worse, plus sudden debilitating nosebleeds and crippling pain striking our leads down as they attempt to flee the farmhouse all provide plenty of creeps. The obligatory scary seance hits all its marks, while the discovered film-within-a-film was a stomach-churning highlight for me (especially those disgusting sound effects!).  
Even the hackneyed first-person flight through the tunnels finale works, proving that even if something has been done before, if it's done well it can still make an impact. Here Jákl does it very well indeed.
As I've written before, it takes genuine skill to make a Found Footage film that feels authentic, yet Jákl manages it. That the crew are supposed to be filming a documentary is a tried and tested reason to legitimise the fact that the footage exists and the old 'torch on the camera to see in the dark'-trick is employed too, but they feel organic and not contrived, unlike many other films in the sub-genre. There are never any moments when the camera feels as if it catches events too fortuitously and Jákl ensures that the first person view is used to the best possible effect, relying just as much on what you cannot see beyond the frame's edge as what you can. He's a talented director and uses every trick to keep the audience unsettled, from superb framing of shots to an assured, slow-burn pace that takes its time to reveal its many mysteries and twists.
Jákl is also credited for the story of the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Petr Bok. The pair did a pretty good job too, coming up with realistic dialogue and characters and a story that blends plenty of creepy elements to give a decidedly unique (and VERY Eastern European) feel a to genre that has become over saturated and needs to work very hard to stand out from an ever-growing crowd. With some fascinating folklore combined with the real-life crimes and horrors of one of the most prolific serial killers in history, this is a heady horror goulash sure to whet most appetites.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): I'm sure that plenty of you are sick and tired with the Found Footage formula. While it is far from the worst example of the sub-genre, Ghoul is not likely to win over those who have had enough with the massive number of Blair Witch Project knock-offs flooding the market. I praised the film for subverting a couple of expectations, such as how Katarina's character evolves to become a large part of the plot and the manner in which the historical murders become a part of the plot, but ultimately this is a film that treads a familiar path. It does it well, but that may not be enough for those whose patience has worn thin. Be warned.

Those historical murders may also prove a source of consternation for some viewers. The crimes of Andrei Chikatilo were sickening and to use them as the source material for what is, at heart, a rather inconsequential work of fun fiction could seem in poor taste. I've addressed this before, and while my opinion is that fictional versions of historical characters can be separated from their real life counterparts (I've seen arguably the most evil man of the 20th Century, Adolph Hitler, appear as a character in plenty of films, many of which have been great fun) I do understand that there are those who are sensitive to this sort of material, especially anybody who may have links to Chikatilo's victims. There is genuine archive footage of the man himself onscreen during some key expository moments that could cause serious upset. As such, viewer discretion is advised. Ditto, the references to the very real and horrific Holodomor, the man-made famine that claimed up to 7million lives. This is a sobering and heart-breaking historic event that may be better suited to more serious material than a Found Footage horror film.
Also, the depiction of the Ukrainian people could be deemed offensive to some. Jákl's story paints them as a superstitious lot that seem 'backward' or less civilised than the Western film crew who make a couple of jibes along these lines. However, this is a fictional representation of a very small part of the country that is being used for colour rather than real commentary. In much the same way that American backwoods hillbillies are often portrayed as stupid, violent, intolerant, incestuous rape-happy maniacs, this is merely a cliche deployed for effect and should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Furthermore, as the story unfolds it appears that these superstitious locals may well have the right idea about the horrors the leads encounter after all.
Also, while I admired the way the film used regional folklore to add an element of mystery, at times it felt a little muddled and could have done with further elaboration. The M.O., strengths, weaknesses and desires of the movie's supernatural menace went largely unexplained and at times seemed unclear. This could have been cleared up with just a few more lines from Inna to clarify them. I'm sure that the filmmakers had very clear rules that they stuck to, the only problem is that nobody ever takes the time to explain them to the audience. Oh well, I'd rather more mystery than being clubbed over the head with answers anyway.
Some viewers may find that the slow pace during the earlier scenes drags a little. I love the way that Jákl et al took the time to layer the atmosphere and scatter the breadcrumbs for the movie's terrifying latter scenes, but in truth, maybe it could have been trimmed back a little. The characters are realistic, but also a little dull. Their bickering does wear thin quite soon and they manage an odd mix of sticking around far too long after shit hits the fan AND overreacting very quickly. Luckily the cast are a likeable enough bunch and their interactions do lend themselves to the old premise of over-confident and clueless westerners find themselves out of their depth when confronted with old world ways. 

THE VERDICT: It may seem clichéd to compare a Found Footage movie to the seminal Blair Witch Project, but Ghoul really does look and feel a lot like that film. With tonnes of creepy atmosphere, a unique plot and an Eastern European flavour that helps it stand out from the crowd, it's easy to see why Ghoul has smashed box office records in Jákl's native Czech Republic. If you haven't yet had your fill of Found Footage, this is a movie that is well worth your time. 

Ghoul is available to watch On Demand in the United States but has yet to find a suitable distributor here in the UK. Here's hoping that happens sooner rather than later. In the meantime, why not check out Ghoul's official Facebook page here. Give it a Like too, I'm sure that that seeing a high level of demand for the film will help to convince distributors on this side of the Pond to put a suitable deal in place.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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