Ghost Game

Ghost Game (2024)

Ghost Game world première at Panic Fest 2024

Ghost Game opens with a masked figure entering a bedroom where a woman sleeps, standing over her with a pair of scissors, and cutting a lock of her hair. As another masked figure, this time female, enters and argues with the first one about his breach of ‘the rules’, they are suddenly attacked by the woman from the bed, who has woken in considerable alarm, and who has the jump on one of the two intruders until the other knocks her unconscious with a nearby trophy. Everything seen here is sourced intradiegetically – whether through hidden cameras in the room, or the bodycams worn by the masked figures – and it will turn out that we are not the only ones watching. For a horrified Vinny (Zaen Haidar) is viewing this edited footage on the laptop of his girlfriend Laura (Kia Dorsey) and getting to know for the first time what she gets up to in her free time with her associate Adrian (Sam Likowski).

Laura and Adrian like to play what they call the ‘ghost game’, living for several days unnoticed in strangers’ houses and furtively messing with their lives. “We’re not here to hurt anyone,” Laura will later explain to Vinny, “At best we’re here to give them a sense of something bigger in the world.” Essentially they are phroggers, but Laura prefers the term ‘ghosts’ because of the way they sneak through the house’s interiors at night, move objects about, and invisibly haunt their hosts. They adhere to a simple, strict code (“don’t get caught; don’t steal anything; and have a plan”) laid down by ‘Mr Wattley’,  the near mythic mentor of the ghost game community online (where their videos are covertly shared) – although some participants, like Adrian, prefer to follow their own urges and ‘punk rock’ spirit, inevitably leading to encounters like the one in the film’s prologue, which fortunately was not fatal. Laura may disapprove of Adrian’s perverted need to get up close and personal with their female targets, but she herself, otherwise caught in a trap of mundane wage slavery, is addicted to the thrills of her dangerous extracurricular activities.

  No sooner has he learnt all this than Vinny wants Laura to stop before somebody gets hurt even worse – but when Laura makes it clear that she would rather lose Vinny than give up her high-risk hobby, he reluctantly insists upon joining her in her next ghost game, in part as a (failed) attempt to keep her away from Adrian’s bad influence. Their target is the long-abandoned Halton House in Maryland, which comes with a cursed history, as its previous residents the Haltons – ‘a picture perfect family’ – were all subjected by their normal-seeming, widely respected matriarch to an inexplicable mass drowning in the mansion’s many baths, before she hanged herself. The ghosts’ plan is to sneak past the cantankerous old caretaker Daniel (Aidan Hughes) and break in just before the arrival of new owners Pete (Michael C. Williams), his second wife Meg (Emily Bennett) and her autistic daughter Samantha (Vienna Maas), who, in this legendary setting, are ripe for being properly spooked.  

Author Pete is under a cloud, after his last book – for which he exploited his own young daughter in the elaborate fabrication of an alien abduction – ruined both his reputation and his previous marriage. Now he hopes that this creepy old house, with its macabre past, will  furnish genuine sensationalist materials for his writings and restore his fortunes. With his alcoholism, his aggression, and his willingness to keep exposing his own family to danger, Paul is part Jack Torrance from The Shining (1980) and part Ellison Oswalt from Sinister (2012) – and as things start going bump in the night, Ghost Game lives up to its title by confounding the phroggers’ amateurish interventions, the author’s possible fakery, and perhaps the malicious intent of something else entirely, watching from the wings and biding its time to strike. Here, if you play with ghosts, you get drowned.

Ghost Game takes director Jill Gevargizian in a very different direction from her psychodramatic feature debut The Stylist (2020). For, by tracking a film crew caught out of its depth in an overdetermined, possibly supernatural scenario that rapidly spirals out of control, Adam Cesare’s screenplay follows a well-worn template familiar from films like Ghostwatch (1992) – “I don’t know, bad pipes”, suggests Meg as the cause of a mysterious event – The Last Broadcast (1998), The Blair Witch Project (1999) – one of whose directors, Eduardo Sánchez, is an executive producer on Gevargizian’s film –  Grave Encounters (2011), Death of a Vlogger (2019), Deadstream (2022) and Mean Spirited (2022). Yet in this house’s cobwebbed rooms and hidden crawlspaces, there are pranks, counterfeits and fakeouts sitting alongside a genuine toxic history and real domestic tragedy, all toying with the viewer’s sense of what is actually going on. For this unfolds at the strange intersection of Jaume Balagueró’s Sleep Tight (2011), Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound (2014) and Adam Randall’s I See You (2019), where it is hard to distinguish the merely playful from the deadly serious, predators from prey, or amateur, would-be ghosts from the real deal.

Some viewers may wonder, given the noisiness and all-round carelessness of these three home invaders, just how they manage to go undetected by their host family for quite so long, while others may be taken aback by the rushed nature of the ending – but in the eventual solution to these multiple, overlapping ‘ghost’ stories, it is possible to find something both unexpected and satisfying. 

strap: Jill Gevargizian’s sophomore feature places thrill-seeking fake ghosts in a haunted house that may be hiding real ones

© Anton Bitel