Film Review: Ghoul

Foolish American filmmakers trek out to rural Ukraine in search of a great story to launch a TV series, only to run afoul of evil spirits and a past that won't stay dead.
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A found-footage project a la The Blair Witch Project, Ghoul opens with fresh-faced Jenny (Jennifer Armour) doing a standup in Boryspil Airport, Kiev. She and her crew—her boyfriend Ryan (Paul S. Tracey), Ethan (Jeremy Isabella), Ukrainian interpreter Katarina (Alina Golovlyova) and all-around fixer Valeriy—are setting out to make a documentary about local Boris Glaskov, who was imprisoned on charges of cannibalism in the early ’90s but eventually released, in large part because no remains of his alleged victim—a female colleague—were ever found. But under hypnosis, Glaskov confessed to cannibalism and said he'd been possessed by supernatural forces, and now he's agreed to speak on the record for the first time. The tyros figure his story will make an excellent pilot—which is being financed by Ryan's father—for what they hope to spin into a series on modern-day cannibalism. A television series, not a YouTube project like their previous endeavors.

Even better, Glaskov has agreed to be interviewed at the country house where his crimes are supposed to have taken place, and where the filmmakers will stay during production. The downside is that he's very creepy, wants more money than they originally agreed on, and demands to be paid upfront. He also seems to take an unsavory interest in Katarina, but no one's too worried about that—there are more of them than there are of him, and mostly they're considerably younger. So off they go to the house—the road is terrible and they have to walk the last mile or so because of felled trees.

The area is deserted—it's about a mile from the nearest village—but, while weather-beaten, the house itself is tidier than they expected. And Valeriy introduces them to a local woman who claims to be a witch; Jenny doesn't see why they need a witch onboard, but Katarina points out that the people out here are kind of standoffish and might refuse to talk to strangers about anything, let alone a subject like this, unless they're with someone who commands a certain local respect. Disconcerted but eager to get started, they quickly set up the equipment and wait for Boris, who never shows up. And it's all downhill from there, starting with the pentagram they find carved into the table on which they've just eaten dinner, hidden beneath the tablecloth. Of course, they have to conduct a little séance, during which they attempt to contact the spirit of one of Boris' victims. And of course, the next morning, the weird stuff starts—Valeriy has disappeared.

Czech actor and writer-director Petr Jákl (Ghoul is his second feature as filmmaker and his first in English) is nothing if not ambitious. Ghoul attempts to weave references to real-like Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, a schoolteacher who murdered dozens of young people; the legacy of the Holodomor—a manmade famine, engineered by Josef Stalin, that killed some seven million Ukrainians in 1932 and ’33; Slavic rural superstitions; and urban paranoia about what goes on in the backcountry into a crackling horror film. And while Ghoul doesn't exactly crackle, it is remarkably creepy, even if it's hard to work up a lot of initial sympathy for the callow, smug young filmmakers who go charging into an alien environment—and Jákl does make the Ukrainian countryside look incredibly grim and uninviting—cloaked in the presumption that nothing bad could possibly happen to them because they're Americans. The film seems to have struck a nerve back home: It reportedly broke box-office records on its opening weekend, out-grossing U.S.-made horror films like most recent installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise and Insidious: Chapter 2.

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