A crudely effective entry in the found footage horror sweepstakes, Czech writer-director Petr Jákl’s Ghoul was filmed in English with an international cast of actors, shot in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and California, and makes its world premiere in the Czech Republic today in both 2D and 3D versions.
It’s a unique event; I can’t recall another Czech production made in English that saw a local theatrical release (2008’s Bathory was filmed in English, but it was released locally in a dubbed version and was more of an international production, anyway).
To add to the mix, Ghoul has some credibility behind it in the form of director and co-writer Petr Jákl, a former martial artist and stuntman who had small roles in some of the Hollywood productions shot in Prague a decade ago, including Eurotrip, xXx, and Alien vs. Predator.
Jákl’s directorial debut was the 2010 feature Kajínek, a biography of the Czech Republic’s most famous criminal that set the record for the highest opening weekend gross at the local box office. Ghoul is his follow-up, which has been produced by US filmmakers Rob Cohen (who directed Jákl in xXx), Joe Lynch (Knights of Badassdom), and Luke Rivett.
All that may be enough to drum up some local interest, and Ghoul has seen some heavy promotion across Prague. But the concept of shooting a found footage movie in English was to make something cheap that could easily be distributed to foreign markets, and the resulting film holds little appeal to anyone who doesn’t care about the story behind it: Ghoul is a decently-made but desperately run-of-the-mill affair that treads heavily on ground paved by The Blair Witch Project.
That film might have felt fresh when it was released sixteen years ago, but hundreds (literally) of found footage affairs later, the genre is played out. If you want to go down that route these days, you’ll need more than a group of amateur filmmakers getting scared in the woods.
Ghoul, however, offers up exactly that. Exactly. The plot involves a trio of no-budget documentarians in middle-of-nowhere, Ukraine, making a documentary about famous cannibals of the twentieth century. They’re lured out to an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods by the first cannibal they try to interview, and guess what happens?
Jennifer Armour stars as Jenny, the foul-mouthed, hot-tempered on-camera interviewer; Paul S. Tracey is Ethan, the megalomaniacal director who pushes his team to go further; and Jeremy Isabella is Ethan, the sympathetic cameraman/producer. Sound familiar? Even these character archetypes are culled directly from The Blair Witch Project.
In an attempt to interview a recently-released criminal who purportedly killed and ate a colleague in 1994, the trio of filmmakers head out to the abandoned cabin where the crime took place. They’re accompanied by translator Katarina (Alina Golovlyova), local connection Valeriy (Vladimir Nevedrov), and “witch” Inna (Inna Belikova) – not psychic or spirit guide, she’s referred to on screen as a witch, who accompanies the crew because “the locals are superstitious.” Uh-huh.
The plot, to the extent that there is one, involves ghosts and cannibals and famous Ukranian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, executed back in ’94 (Chikatilo himself was not a cannibal, despite exaggerated media reports, though an older brother was reportedly kidnapped and cannibalized before Chikatilo was born). I stopped trying to make sense of it about halfway through; maybe you’ll have better luck.
What Ghoul does have going for it is some genuinely creepy atmosphere. The location itself is vaguely unsettling, and while the film has no shortage of jump scares, director Jákl wisely lets the tension build without release in certain scenes. The film’s best moment is a single, slow zoom into the nothingness of the woods; that one shot builds more dread than all the hysteria surrounding the plot and characters. Archive footage of Chikatilo mugging for the camera during his trial is also pretty creepy.
Ghoul is moderately better than the last few found footage movies I’ve seen in cinemas, which include As Above, So Below, Devil’s Pass, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Yecch. Those movies all descended into unintentional comedy, but Ghoul manages to maintain its composure outside of a few isolated moments that drew chuckles from a press screening audience, including an awfully corny final shot.
But that’s hardly a recommendation. Ghoul is so close in conception to Blair Witch – and so woefully outdated – that I cannot imagine who it will appeal to. In a market over-saturated with this kind of product, it brings nothing new to the table.
Ghoul is being released locally in both 2D and 3D versions; the above review refers to the 2D version of the film. I can’t imagine what the 3D might add, but I do believe it’s a first in the found footage genre (the aptly-titled Found Footage 3D hits later this year).
Note: while the majority of the dialogue is in English, and much of the Ukrainian dialogue is translated on screen, there are a few lines in Ukrainian which are subtitled only in Czech in local cinemas.