Film - Ghosts of the Ozarks

Available on Digital on 23rd May, thanks to Signature Entertainment, Ren Zelen watched Ghosts of the Ozarks...

Directors: Matt Glass Jordan Wayne Long
Writers: Sean Anthony Davis (collaborating writer) Jordan Wayne Long, Tara Perry
Starring: Thomas Hobson, Phil Morris, Tara Perry, Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette, Angela Bettis, Joseph Ruus

The horror-western remains an underrepresented genre which deserves more exploration, so I was intrigued by the setting of Ghosts of the Ozarks, which appears to be a period Western as well as a supernatural mystery.

Thomas Hobson plays James McClune, a young African-American medic trained in the Civil War. He is summoned by his Uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) to serve in a community called ‘Norfork’ that his uncle has founded in post-war Arkansas.

James jumps at the opportunity - he has been physically and emotionally scarred by the civil war and a post for a doctor with a wounded arm, let alone a non-white doctor, is difficult to find.

As night falls James comes close to his destination, but in the thick woods that surround the little settlement sinister events begin to unfold. His horse becomes skittish and eventually bolts. A stranger appears out of the trees and asks to share in the heat from James’s small campfire.

Suddenly the stranger attacks him shouting incoherently about ‘stones’, but in the fracas, a mysterious red fog rolls in and seems to snatch the dangerous stranger back out into the night.

James is understandably spooked and flees in the opposite direction where he stumbles into a high fortress wall made of logs, and pounds on the gate therein. This turns out to be the fortifications that surrounds Norfolk, the place he’s been looking for.

A wary James is taken aback by the warm greeting he receives on his arrival from the denizens of the virtually all-white community. It seems that his uncle Matthew has created some kind of Utopia, where all citizens are treated equally, irrespective of their race, creed or the colour of their skin, where everyone has a place and a ‘purpose’.

Despite its isolation, Norfolk even has the convenience of many amenities, including natural gas, which gives the people light and heat in their homes. His uncle extols the virtues of his community – a place of racial harmony and communal co-operation, far away from the rest of the realities of 19th Century America, which remains riven by social divisions.

However, when James recounts his experiences with the red mist in the woods, his uncle Matthew explains that the people of Norfork owe their peace and prosperity partly to the mysterious ‘ghosts’ who patrol the woods outside the wall of the settlement and who protect them from intruders with malicious intent.

James is befriended by Torb (Tim Blake Nelson) the blind proprietor of the local saloon, restaurant and boarding house and his kindly wife Lucille (Angela Bettis) who provides the food and the musical entertainment for the saloon guests.

James notes that the walls inside are decorated with paintings of the ‘ghosts’, but Torb dismisses them as “parlor tricks.” However, Douglas (David Arquette) the friendly local haberdasher and photographer, is curious about the ghosts and takes to his roof each night to look over the wall into the woods with his camera, hoping to be the first man to capture the ‘ghosts’ in a picture.

James secures a room at the saloon and the next day is introduced to the community ‘hunters’ - plucky Annie (Tara Perry) and her taciturn giant of a brother William (Joseph Ruus). They provide the people with meat from the local deer and boor that they stalk in the woods, mostly during daylight hours, but they also display much less fear of the ‘ghosts’ who come out at night than the other residents.

The first sign that Norfork might not quite be the utopia James’s uncle describes comes when, on the way to his new doctor’s surgery, he sees the slashed-up corpse of his attacker of the previous night being wheeled to the graveyard.

As he hears gossip circulating and comes across residents who seem to suffer odd wounds and attacks after they have criticized the confinements of the Norfork community, James begins to get suspicious about the power his uncle wields and about the ‘ghosts’ in the woods. He comes to realize that there may be other reasons that a prosperous Black man in postbellum Arkansas might have to shut out curious strangers or silence rebellious citizens.

Ghosts of the Ozarks was co-directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, from a script by Long and Tara Perry (the latter of whom also plays Annie). The filmmakers deserve credit for originality and world building. The Norfork citadel looks impressively realistic for the era, and the references to the prior lives of the characters and what they endured during the Civil War effectively flesh out the larger picture of the world outside its walls.

However, the storyline remains somewhat reminiscent of Shyamalan’s The Village or Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The film is lifted by a capable cast that includes Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis, and David Arquette, as well as Tara Perry, James Hobson and Phil Morris. They are successful in creating intriguing characters that will be the major reason that will engage the viewer and keep them watching.

Review Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2022 All rights reserved.
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Signature Entertainment present Ghosts of the Ozarks on Digital Platforms 23rd May.

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