A Ghost Waits (2020)

A Ghost Waits first published by SciFiNow

“I don’t know why I do what I do.”

The speaker, Jack (MacLeod Andrews, They Look Like People, The Siren) is going through what might be called an existential crisis. Displaced from his own home by a neighbour’s cockroach infestation, he is having to make his bed wherever he can – and right now, given that neither his boss, his friends or his clients seem willing to offer their couch or even answer his calls, the thirtysomething handyman is having to sleep where he works: a rental home whose previous occupants left in a real hurry. As Jack drifts about the premises, trying to do minor repairs and report on any greater property  damage while working around a family’s abandoned furniture and belongings, he is like a restless ghost – alone, unsettled, practically invisible. He even, to stave off his loneliness, talks with the toilet (voicing both sides of this one-way conversation), or – in a dream – with his own doppelgänger.

As it turns out, this ordinary-looking suburban unit is also accommodating a ghost of a more straightforwardly literal kind. Muriel (Natalie Walker) has been moving furniture about, making noises, entering tenants’ dreams and ultimately frightening people away from her house for very many years. Yet perhaps there is something metaphorical to this ‘spectral agent’ after all. For as someone also starting to question the purpose of her ‘job’ and her ‘life’, and also longing for companionship, Muriel is a perfect double for Jack – a personified expression of his inner monologue, like that flapping toilet lid.   

As its title implies, A Ghost Waits is a ghost story – but with strong psychological/philosophical preoccupations, it is as much about a haunted man as a haunted house. As Jack struggles to find a way out of his personal and professional rut, Muriel’s failure to get rid of him reflects his own sense of failure. They say that like attracts like, and although Jack and Muriel occupy the same space in different dimensions, before you can say “The Ghost and Mrs Muir” this well-matched pair of disgruntled working folk find themselves wanting just to hang out together and discuss matters theological, teleological and eschatological.

If the feature debut of writer/director Adam Stovall certainly includes the kinds of scares associated with its genre, they are shown to be part of a ghost’s performative bag of tricks, little different from the tools and expertise that Jack brings to his jobs. And just as Jack answers to his boss Neal (voiced by Stovall), ghosts like Muriel and Rosie (Sydney Vollmer) – with whom Muriel is temporarily forced to partner up on her job – are overseen by an office-bound supervisor (Amanda Miller), in a low-key version of the infernal bureaucracy from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). 

Indeed everything here is low-key, as Stovall compensates for his small budget with big ideas, deconstructing and reconceptualising the ghost story from the ground up. Likewise the decision to present everything in old-fashioned black and white may be a cinematic way of merging Jack’s contemporary present with Muriel’s past, and to show the colourless quality that the world has assumed in both Jack’s and Muriel’s eyes (in what is, in the final analysis, a film about Jack’s depression) – but this monochrome also helps cover over some very simple (and cheap) makeup and visual effects. Give more money to Stovall, and it will be interesting to see what he does next – but meanwhile this uncanny romance, melancholic if generous-spirited, makes an interesting companion piece to David Lowery’s similarly lo-fi, location-fixed A Ghost Story (2017). For here too, haunting is a business that is kept strictly in-house, and where the work, though able to be combined with pleasure, never ends.

Strap: Adam Stovall’s debut feature uses ghostly romance to fix up a damaged psyche.

© Anton Bitel