It’s said that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
It’s a quote that’s been repeated by many – some with strong conviction and others with deft hypocrisy. But Eric Bress’ Ghosts of War breathes it. Every second in his hybrid war horror builds up to making it abundantly clear that all actions have consequences, but there is no act more worthy of vengeance than standing idle at the death of innocents.
Set against the background of World War II, the film follows five American soldiers posted up at a mansion formerly taken by Nazis from a French family. It’s a welcome relief to the squad, who are no strangers to field combat, which is ruthlessly illustrated by their violent confrontation with the enemy prior to reaching their destination. Of course, things aren’t what they seem, with the skittish skeleton crew that the soldiers are replacing overzealous to leave, much to the bewilderment of the group’s arbitrary leader (portrayed by Aussie actor Brenton Thwaites).
“I mean if this place is like Coney Island, what’s the rush?”, he naively asks. The rush turns out to be the soldiers’ new co-existence with everything that goes bump in the night, as foreshadowing closeups of creepy dolls rapidly escalate to Morse Code messages like, “I have no legs.”
“By contrasting the horrors of war with the tenets of horror, Bress does a masterful job of forcing his audience to question which is worse.”
By contrasting the horrors of war with the tenets of horror, Bress does a masterful job of forcing his audience to question which is worse. It’s a constant game of would you rather: are visions of being drowned in a bathtub worse than being cornered by advancing Nazis? Which is better, the devil you can see or the devil you don’t?
As it turns out, references to a word meaning a curse of revenge in Arabic despite the film’s European World War II setting aren’t coincidental. Neither are messages about losing limbs, but those revelations aren’t paranormal or ghostly. Where you watch a hero dive on a grenade to save his men in gory detail, you’re offered relief (somewhat) in the banter between the soldiers, in the absolute madness of a ghost levitating one of the group like they’ve cast a Wingardium Leviosa. The latter leaves you unprepared for the absolute seriousness that you’re blindsided by when (and spoilers ahead) the soldiers begin to awake from their simulation.
Through some complicated explaining from some anachronistic doctors, we find out that the characters that we’ve been following are actually suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, which is being treated through some form of mixed reality scenario technology. They were really in Afghanistan, where they watched a family die right in front of their eyes while they cowered behind a hidden wall. While some unnecessary steps may have been taken to get there, the point that Bess makes is that the abhorrent actions that took place in World War II, including the murder of the family that haunt the house that we journey from, aren’t actually all in the past. People are still being tortured and killed in the name of war and power.
As a viewer, you start off acknowledging that the Nazis in World War II enacted inhumanely cruel acts. Taking the film into the present hammers the point home that war crimes continue even now, especially across the Middle East. The protagonists in Ghosts of War have to live with their guilt for standing by and doing nothing. As complacent witnesses to the atrocities of war that prevail to this day, shouldn’t we be haunted by that too?