A Ghost Waits Twists the Classic Ghost Story on Its Head

Ghost stories have been around ever since humans first discovered communication, and it’s easy to see why. Not only do they hint at the possibility of an afterlife, but they can be spooky, powerful tales that tackle a variety of real-world issues through a supernatural lens. For me, the genre tends to be pretty hit or miss—I like a good ghost story, but they often have to be executed in a specific or unique way for them to resonate with me. I find that too often they fall back on generic plot structures, which is why Adam Stovall’s debut feature A Ghost Waits intrigued me so much.

Jack cleans a toilet while talking to it

A Ghost Waits uses a classical ghost story setup to wink at the audience. Jack (Macleod Andrews) is a caretaker for a real estate firm, and when another family moves out from one of the properties he’s responsible for, he heads there to make sure everything is up to code. It isn’t long before he’s done, but he needs to stick around since the movers haven’t come to get the previous family’s stuff. Soon spooky happenings occur both while he’s awake and while he sleeps. He keeps having a dream of waking up in one of the upstairs beds and even sees himself as a bartender at one point. Turns out that the place is being haunted by a woman named Muriel (Natalie Walker), whose only wish is to scare people out of the house. Things don’t go as planned when Jack and Muriel start bonding.

Both leads are played well by their respective actors. Andrews’ performance as Jack is just the right mixture of goofy and melancholy, really selling the character as a loner who struggles to connect with other people, which in turns helps us believe that he would be drawn to Muriel. Muriel is a spirit who has been dead for at least two hundred years, and the way Walker delivers her lines feels old fashioned enough that she seems like she’s from a different era, but it isn’t so dated as to be jarring with the modern themes the movie explores.

Because, as it turns out, Muriel didn’t die in the house. The cleverness of A Ghost Waits comes from the fact that it is sort of a workplace comedy. In this movie’s version of the afterlife, people are assigned to different places they are supposed to haunt, and there’s even a hierarchy of the different spectral types people can be. While this is lifted almost right out of Beetlejuice, it instead uses this mixture of the mundane and the supernatural to explore the movie’s central theme, which is the failure to connect and taking charge of your own life. Jack’s character centers on the former—he sticks around the house doing nothing, and the few interactions he has with people are painfully awkward. Muriel is more about the latter—she realizes through Jack that she is not in control of her afterlife.

There’s plenty of dry humor derived from this premise, and it helps us related to relate to Muriel even though she’s from an entirely different era. We’ve all had jobs where we feel like we have no control, and her story, in particular, resonates strongly. It’s cathartic to see her and Jack overcome and take control of their lives, although it does lead to an ending that feels questionable at best. There came a point near the end of the second act where I questioned if it was heading in the direction I thought it was heading—and I was right. Without giving too much away, the thematic implication of the ending is nice, but it also made me question the overall intent of the director. It seems to promote the idea that the best way to take control of your life is to give up on it entirely. It felt out of place and borderline amateurish compared to the rest of the movie.

It’s something I can see being a huge turn-off for a lot of people, especially if they have a history with the subject matter. But to write it off entirely because of the ending would be a disservice to some of the more interesting things the movie does. For instance, it’s shot entirely in black and white, which was something I questioned at first. The way Natalie Walker is made up looks particularly ghastly due to the lack of a color pallet, but it became clear that it was meant as an homage to early-cinema ghost stories and Gothic romances.

Muriel and Rosie stand in a room

There’s even a scene where Muriel, an experienced “spectral agent,” mentors a newer ghost named Rosie (Sydney Vollmer). Rosie favors jump scares over subtlety in her haunting, popping out of corners and generally being a loud nuisance for Jack. Muriel favors a slow buildup, opening cupboards, making strange noises, before eventually manifesting and scaring the pants off the house’s occupants. In the scene where Rosie takes notes from Muriel, it almost feels like the movie is pitting one style of horror against another; think The Haunting of Hill House, which is all about mood and atmosphere, pitted against the over the top supernatural mayhem of something like The Conjuring. This meta-commentary is something I think the movie could have had more of, but it’s interesting to see a film made so directly address the different styles of ghost movies against one another.

I think that could summarize my feelings on the movie as a whole. It has a unique premise that explores its relatable themes through dry humor and pathos. A lot of the movie’s success rests on the likability of Andrews and Walker—without their charisma and good performances, this would be a somewhat confused and muddled, but unique ghost story. As it stands, A Ghost Waits is a flawed but charming debut for Adam Stovall, and I’m curious to see how he refines his skills in his next feature.

A Ghost Waits is available to stream on Arrow Films‘ Video Player February 1st. Images and review copy provided by Arrow.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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