By KEVIN HOOVER
Starring Owen Conway, Robert Sprayberry, and Eva Hamilton
Written and directed by Owen Conway
Horror’s ability to pull in cash is indisputable, so foul not the budding director that chooses to hitch another genre’s wagon to our bloody business as a means to appeal to sinister sensibilities. That’s Economics 101, and if it takes dumping a few gallons of gore into a romcom to ensure that a studio can recoup its financial investments, then so be it. Problem is, trying to build out countering styles of film is a mountainous undertaking, and failing the hit the high notes of each respective approach often leaves the combined sum anemic.
GHOST TOWN marries the Victorian-era western with horror; a welcome reprieve from a gluttonous spate of attempts at comedic horror. Period wear, southwestern dialect, a couple of shootouts – all the necessary boxes checked to deliver a western at its barest of minimums. Toss in a few jump scares and dead folks with CGI superimposed skulls to infuse the horror element, but yet again, at a minimum. And that’s exactly how GHOST TOWN gallops along – with characters, settings, and dialog that punch at their weight for roughly 90 minutes.
Even the most down-and-out cowpoke deserves a break, and tides finally seem to be turning for Solomon (writer and director Owen Conway) when he scores a gig as a barman at the local saloon and brothel. While pouring drinks is the name of the game, it’s the unceasing need to “empty the piss buckets” that seems to occupy the majority of his day. His boss Hagan (Robert Sprayberry), frequently threatens to dock Solomon’s pay should he be late to work, fraternize with the prostitutes, or partake in any other numerous transgressions. Workplace nuisances be damned, however; Solomon is dealing with something far more malevolent.
Something like ghosts. Maybe.
In a movie called GHOST TOWN, apparitions would most assuredly come with the territory. Whether these threats are extrinsic or otherwise would be anybody’s guess because the plot never quite gets around to explaining it. From the outset, Solomon presents as a troubled soul, but whether that is booze or “boo” influenced is never examined. Perhaps there was a big reveal that read great during pre-production but inexplicably was lost in translation between script and screen.
Further compounding aggravation at the short-changed script is that GHOST TOWN isn’t a complete miss. Interactions between characters, while robotic at times, manage to feel authentic at others. Hearing Hagan frequently order Solomon to empty the urinals sounds as commonplace as any boss barking out orders to their subordinates (who hopefully have more desirable work duties), but the banter between a pair of prostitutes and a parched posse at the saloon will leave you staring around the screen in search of an accidental cue card slip up. And a slightly better-than-average soundtrack lifts its fair share of the immersion-building workload.
Anything daring to call itself a western is expected to exhibit the timeless scene of a dusty street flanked by wood panel buildings with swinging doors, but GHOST TOWN subverts the norms and narrows its locales down to a select few unremarkable settings. It doesn’t ruin the overall experience but check preconceived notions beforehand as you prepare to enjoy views of a porch, a bar, a couple of hotel rooms, and an outhouse. An archetype of the guerilla filmmaker without truckloads of cash to burn, minimizing the number of film sets used can strengthen the overall project when pulled off correctly; in GHOST TOWN’S case, the lack of window dressing only further accentuates the malnourished plot. In the few instances when the camera does wander outside and pan mountain ridges and sunsets, the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside serves as a complementary backdrop to 1877 Arizona.
A movie needn’t reinvent the wheel to garner an audience but fail to nail the fundamentals like a cohesive story with a sensical conclusion, and all the spit and polish in the world can’t save the resultant mess. Although this is Conway’s directorial debut, it’s not his first foray into film – or even his first western. His previous turn in writing and acting in 2019’s Eminence Hill shows real creative chops, and hopefully, his future efforts will continue to improve. But GHOST TOWN’S inability to flesh out or tie up a threadbare storyline is too big a flaw to ignore here, regardless of how many pretty sunsets are interspersed throughout. And while an ambiguous ending isn’t necessarily a bad thing – an ambiguous narrative is a whole different rodeo.
GHOST TOWN is currently available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.