Aug 6, 2013


"Are you ready for your first night in a haunted house?"

And so begins An American Ghost Story. Like Sinister and The Amityville Horror before it, our characters knowingly move into a house allegedly haunted and previously the scene of a family murdered. Paul, much like Elliott Oswalt in Sinister, has decided to write a book about the infamous house to which he and his girlfriend have moved, his rationale being the explosion in popularity of the supernatural, as well as his own desire to "finally finish something" he has started. And he has a plan to make the so-called haunted house more interesting for his potential book. "Supposably [sic] recreating a room's look can make spirits more active," he explains. "I'm going to make this house look as much like it used to as I can." Well, he doesn't even get that far when all kinds of spooky goings-on begin to occur: a phantom ball following him around a la The Changeling; moving kitchen chairs and teleporting dolls a la Poltergeist; a ghost actually wearing a bed sheet a la Paranormal Activity 3; and spontaneously opening drawers and cabinets a la The Sixth Sense. It's not long before Stella peaces-out of the house immediately following her first brush with signs of the haunting, leaving Paul to be alone with his ghostly company.

Ghost movies are getting hard to do and harder to appreciate it. Because it's all been done. All of it. We've seen the twist endings involving dead main characters, we've heard the disembodied whispering in the dark corner, and dear god, we've seen the jocular and obnoxious friend/comic relief purposely scare our lead(s) because, you know, why not? And too often we see low budget "filmmakers" who crap out a rough outline for a film in order to ride the coat-tails of another more popular and high profile one. (The Asylum has been known to do this when they're not tossing sharks in tornadoes.) What can trump these hurdles are two simple things: a well-told story and filmmakers with honor and taste.

An American Ghost Story is not the most original haunted house movie ever made, nor is it the best, but it is well-made and at times effective. You will see an awful lot of familiar gags taken from other well-known genre films, but our filmmakers are smart enough to know that it's precisely because you have seen these other well-known films that you are watching their film in the first place. And so in that regard An American Ghost Story instead becomes a charming, if at times familiar experience.

Stephen Twardokus as Paul (and also our script writer) makes for an effective lead. He's boyish and innocent, perhaps at times a bit too saucer-eyed, but it's hard not to like him. After a rocky beginning, in which he grins as he tells Stella about the bloody killings that took place in their house and makes tasteless jokes about brain matter, he soon sobers up and becomes a much more respectful character. In keeping with the previous (and unavoidable) comparison to Sinister, Paul is far more sympathetic than Ethan Hawke's Ellison. While he was driven by a desire to prove something to everyone and rediscover his fame by writing "his In Cold Blood," Paul's goal is not a selfish one. He's not particularly interested in the paranormal; he instead just wants to prove something to himself, and he's willing to ride a current fad to do it. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it does make his reasoning seem like a cheat. "Ghosts are in, so I'll write about ghosts," etc. And it's not even like he starts off as a skeptic and soon learns to believe - from minute one he's already trying to communicate with the ghosts via tape recorder. Because of this, the character of Paul is limited, emotionally, and gives us less to invest in.

The acting itself is just fine, and that goes for the entire ensemble. Wendy Haines as Sue does the best job out of everyone, playing a former tormented tenant of Paul's new house. Liesel Kopp and Cain Clifton as Stella and Sam, respectively, do well in their limited roles; they only seem to make an appearance when the plot calls for it (or we need a humor break).

Oh, and I love this ending - both on a thematic level as well as a technical one. And that's as far as I'll go in describing it.

Director Derek Cole knows the less-is-more approach. Likely this was a result of the low budget, but who cares? It's still effective, and forces he and Twardokus to rely on mood and traditional scares. This decision makes for a solid backbone of tension, and is only periodically ruined by unnecessary jarring musical stings. A purposeful slow-burn pace and extreme lack of special effects may turn off some viewers used to breakneck speed and ghastly set-pieces, but I doubt this film was made for them, anyway. Think The Haunting. Not, you know... that other The Haunting.

An American Ghost Story hits video August 20.


  1. This looks very intriguing, I'm going to check this out for sure! I'm not one for "Break neck speed" that's why I'm a huge fan of Ti West, he does real horror, not gore horror. People say that this type and Ti's type of films are boring. But to people like us that know horror isn't just about showing someones face getting ripped off with as much blood spilled as possible, the slow burn approach is always the best. It builds suspense, character development, tension, and actually forces you to be scared as opposed to making you jump with loud music or effects, cheap jumps. Well-written review, I'm going to check this for sure.

    1. I was not expecting much at first, but I was pleasantly surprised. I like it when filmmakers prove me wrong for doubting them. Thanks for reading!

  2. Have you even watched this film? The acting is outrageously terrible.