I’d heard good things about Adam Stovall’s A Ghost Waits after its debut screening at Glasgow FrightFest earlier this year, but I didn’t expect it to be so charming and romantic. It’s also sweetly funny and disarmingly sad. I gather there were more than a few tears, which is not something you’d expect at a horror film festival.
The premise of a person in love with a ghost isn’t new. The most famous is 90s smash Ghost of course (Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, pottery and Unchained Melody) as well as the UK’s more understated Truly, Madly, Deeply from the same era. Go back further and early examples include post-war melodramas The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie; more recently David Lowery’s A Ghost Story was a low-key success. But these are all tales of someone reconnecting with the ghost of a loved one, rather than of someone falling in love with a ghost.
The plot is centred around Jack (MacLeod Andrews), a handyman doing minor repairs to a rental property shortly after the previous occupants left. With no options other to sleep in the house he’s repairing, he begins to notice strange, supernatural occurrences. Strange sounds, slamming doors, things mysterious disappearing. The house has been haunted for years- it’s the reason the former inhabitants moved out – by an expert ghost named Muriel (Natalie Walker). However, Jack doesn’t scare easily – he wants to finish his work much to Muriel’s puzzlement. The two rapidly fall in love, but other paranormal forces are intent to thwart the relationship.
This could have easily fallen into cheap whimsy and there’s no denying it has a lighthearted charm. Initially it threatens to be a little too quirky, but all such concerns vanish as the inventive script and engaging leads quickly win us over and take us in some quite surprising directions. For example, it turns ghosts are part of an organisation of ‘spectral agents’ with its own corporate culture, not unlike the afterlife in A Matter of Life and Death although A Ghost Waits‘s refreshing indie tone is quite different from the technicolour canvas and plummy British derring-do in the Powell & Pressburger film.
But the real charm is from the two individual characters and in Stovall’s script and direction. We immediately root for Jack, a nice guy who nevertheless is lonely and often taken for granted. Andrews’s likeable performance as he carries the one-man first act is sweet and engaging as he carries out his repairs, listens to music and even talking to himself (there’s a bittersweet scene when he holds a playful conversation with a toilet). When Muriel manifests she turns out to be a slightly awkward and vulnerable ghost. Initially, Walker’s playing of Muriel seems more stilted than the casual charm Andrews brings to Jack, but that’s part of her character and we (and Jack) warm to her as get to understand her better. The two find a self-realisation in one another that remained elusive to them in their respective corporeal and spiritual domains.
Filmed in a crisp black-and-white, which also serves to usefully disguise the cheapness of some of the special effects, the spooky occurrences are hardly frightening for the audience. The low-budget charm of cupboard doors swinging open by themselves or of a disappearing pizza show a witty acknowledgement of old-school haunted house movies and are made amusing by the quiet comic timing of Andrews and later of Walker, particularly when things don’t work quite as planned.
If anything, the relationship with Muriel felt a little too rushed. I would have liked to have seen them bond more gradually. While a late subplot involving a rival ghost reinforces a key theme about understanding people’s inner weaknesses, it would have been nice to have had a few more minute with the couple by themselves first if only to cement their romance for the viewer.
Nevertheless, the lightness of the entire film is underpinned by a pathos that Jack finds love and appreciation only with a ghost and not in the real world. Darker themes of depression and suicide give this lighthearted film a surprisingly affecting depth and a real emotional punch as the film draws to a close. Despite the metaphysical levity, A Ghost Awaits is a very human romance.