Taking narrative cues from The Village and The Wickerman, Ghosts of the Ozarks invites us into the seemingly idyllic village of Norfork, a bubble of serenity in the turbulent landscape of postbellum America. However, while the village appears to be a progressive paradise, the film reveals that the key to this oasis of social cohesion may prove to be something deeply sinister.
The film tells the story of a young doctor, James (Thomas Hobson). Haunted by memories of conflict, he finds himself called to a post as physician to a remote town in post-Civil-War Arkansas. His uncle, Matthew (Phil Morris), is the authority in the town and gives his nephew the lay of the land. Although the town appears to be a safe haven, one in which a black man can hold a position of authority with no questions asked, it is in fact beset by constant dangers. A stout and constantly monitored wall protects the town from ‘ghosts’, strange creatures that maul and murder the unwary, their arrival preceded by an ominous red fog.
The film boasts a fine cast, with David Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson and Angela Bettis filling out roles among the townspeople. Some are more successful than others. For example, David Arquette’s enthusiastic businessman is folksy, pleasant and affable almost to the point of being cartoonish. Tara Perry fares better as Annie, the brassy ex-hunter who James convinces to help out in his surgery. Tim Blake Nelson, playing a disfigured and blinded barkeep who entertains his guests with parlour tricks, is one of the most entertaining characters. An especially strong sequence of the film sees him belting out a song about coal miners with his wife accompanying him on the piano, while the camera takes us roaming around the town.
The film can also lay claim to a decent level of period authenticity, and by night the lamplit town is atmospheric and spooky. The choice to set the film in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War is an interesting one. America is being forced to pick through the wreckage of a ruinous conflict in order to rediscover her identity. It’s a setting that the film seems intent on exploring, but that exploration is not always fruitful.
If Ghosts of the Ozarks has one cardinal sin, it is an over-reliance on telling rather than showing. Phil Morris is an excellent and charismatic presence as the town’s patriarch. The conversations that he has with James, ruminating on the nature of freedom and security, are engaging. However, they take place against rather a bland backdrop of stock characters, many rather vaguely sketched. These don’t successfully dramatise the themes that the film is meant to be about. We are told that the town is a safe haven of racial tolerance, but the cast is still overwhelmingly white, and we rarely see the racial conflicts (or lack thereof) demonstrated in the plot. We are told about the constant threat of the ghosts, but that threat rarely feels urgent. The film tells us that the setting is rare and wonderful, though precarious and in constant danger, but we rarely feel this. Instead, for the most part, the film plods along at a fairly placid pace, with the doctor making his rounds in a town that feels oddly lifeless.
With good production design, strong performances and an arresting lead, Ghosts of the Ozarks has all of the elements of a great period horror. However, its strong central metaphor, that of America as the shining city on the hill, and the question of whether true security can ever be worth the price, are explained to the audience rather than demonstrated through the story. As a result, the experience is a mixed bag, lacking the excitement and urgency of the folk horror offerings that it clearly owes a debt to.