A Ghost Waits is a self-described “micro-budget” horror comedy about a freelance home repairer Jack (MacLeod Andrews, who is also one of the credited screenwriters) who is sent to assess a rental property that can’t keep tenants, with most breaking their lease incredibly early. As he inspects the home, strange things begin to happen and he has unnerving nightmares. Soon the issue driving away renters becomes clear: the house has a ghost infestation. Or rather, it has a “spectral agent” infestation, as Muriel (Natalie Walker) is quick to correct Jack.
You see, unlike other ghost stories, Muriel isn’t haunting the home because it has any particular emotional resonance for her personally. It is simply her job, as in she has a boss who reviews her work and threatens to bring in new spectral agents if she isn’t up to the task, or to end her employ, which in this case means she ceases to exist. The rules of the spirit realm are never fully explored beyond the basics, but it gets across the core truth: the mundanity of having a 9-to-5 even plagues the dead.
Thus we have the core crux of most of the film: Jack and Muriel are two people who have jobs that they are meant to accomplish that are at direct cross purposes. Jack’s job is to fix the house so his landlord boss can make money on it, and Muriel’s job is to keep the house cleared out for…unspecified reasons. It’s just what spectral agents do, and if they don’t, they become mere shadows. Muriel is caught in eternal existential dread, and Jack is simply trying to make his paycheck.
It is worth noting that this film is short at 79 minutes and also in no special rush to get through these plot points. Almost the entire first half of the film is McCleod acting against no one else, walking around the house, having unnerving experiences but mostly brushing it off and continuing to do his jobs. Other than a brief tease at the very beginning of the film, Muriel doesn’t really show up until about 31 minutes in. Once she does though, the film’s plot definitely picks up, introducing us to her perspective of events and giving us glimpses of the afterlife she exists within.
It is a testament to McCleod’s acting prowess that he is able to go through that stretch of isolation and still communicate how effortlessly charismatic he is. Jack is a likeable character, affable if lonely and constantly good-natured given the extreme circumstance. Once the hauntings start to increase, he reacts with a sort of natural care-free attitude that wins over the audience’s affection. He’s extremely likeable, and as he and Muriel grow closer, it is easy to imagine why she allows to put her guard down around him, cluing him in to her side of the divide. The rest of the acting in the film is fine for this sort of staged, indie affair that feels like it could just as easily be a stage play, but they never exhibit the sort of charismatic draw that McCleod brings to the film.
The film is shot entirely in black and white, likely to allow the ghostly make-up to have a more textured appearance. The effect is somewhat muted however due to modern black and white techniques; for much of the film the picture is far too clear, too crisp to allow for the contrast of the black and white to offer real contours. It isn’t simply a stylistic choice; it has a purpose and is mostly effective once you get into that final act. But the initial impression is jarring.
Sometimes a film’s ending can totally reshape your feeling about the entire film. When I reviewed Measure for Measure, a film I mostly enjoyed, I did make mention of how the very last moment left a sour taste in my mouth. It wasn’t enough to not make me feel enthusiastic about recommending it, but I did feel like I had an obligation to note that it struck me as a bad beat to leave on. I didn’t want to spoil what precisely about it hit me as wrong because it didn’t seem necessary in the process of discussing that film’s merits and flaw to spoil the literal final shot.
And now I sit to figure out how to talk about A Ghost Waits, a film I want to praise for all the things it does right but has such a drastically misguided, alarming ending that I feel obligated to write about it. Unlike Measure for Measure, where the final moments mostly seem to be at odds with the messages leading up to the finale, the end of this micro-budget horror romantic comedy inarguably repaints the narrative up to that moment. It isn’t a coda that feels misplaced; it is the climax that the film is building towards throughout and recontextualizes everything that came before.
– Spoilers Follow
If you don’t want to see any spoilers for A Ghost Waits, here would be a good time to back out. However, I strongly suggest you continue reading.
The following portion of the review discusses suicide. If that is a triggering topic, please proceed with caution. But I also feel obligated to note, A Ghost Waits contains triggering elements.
As the story continues, Jack and Muriel realize that they have deep feelings and affection for one another and wish to spend more time with each other. But with Jack’s contract on the house ending, and Muriel being tied to haunting the home for eternity, they are set to be separated and soon. Jack, finding that separation unacceptable, in no small part because he sees no other tethering relationships or passions in his life, decides to kill himself in hopes of also becoming a spectral agent. We then cut to a montage of the now ghostly pair scaring away new tenants, happily together.
There is a potential reading of the film that Muriel, who is tasked with scaring away Jack and finding it impossible to do so, instead uses manipulation to pull Jack into the role of spectral agent as a work around to both clear living things out of the house and share in the burden of haunting. But the film’s framing doesn’t mark the decision as a tragedy or a trick. This isn’t a scary ending, but rather a triumph, an act of sacrificial love between two souls who discover each other across death. It is presented as a fairy tale ending, which is where I struggle with how the ending taints the rest of the film.
Throughout, Jack is confronted with the idea and fear that he is in fact alone and isolated. The movie makes it abundantly clear that while there are aspects of his job he enjoys, if he didn’t have to work, he wouldn’t. He longs for connection with other people, but his attempts to reach out are met with rejection. Except for Muriel that is, who finds him charming, primarily because he is charming. So through suicide, Jack finds release. As Jack kills himself slowly, we see Muriel smiling, excited by his act of seeming self-sacrifice. In his final moments, the pair are holding hands. It is unambiguously romantic.
I can’t claim to know what writers McCleod and Adam Stovall, who also directed the film, are exploring in these final moments. It is entirely possible that the intent is to explore how the pressures of late-stage capitalism creates unreasonable expectations on a millennial generation that leads to suicidal ideation. This is a real phenomenon, and there is certainly a portion of the film that questions the purpose of living an unfulfilling life. But rather than having Jack go through the creative work of finding some way to stay connected with Muriel, is goes fatalistic and death-embracing.
Intentionally or not, there is a very easy reading of A Ghost Waits that suggests a glorified view of noble suicide, especially of suicide and self-harm in the name of love. That’s dangerous waters to be treading into, and as capable of an actor as McCleod is and as steady a hand as Stovall has as director, it still feels volatile.
I think A Ghost Waits has a lot going for it. It is grounded by a killer concept, has a great lead performance and works around its budget constraints in clever, if noticeable, ways. It was a movie I was ready to recommend to anyone who enjoys off-beat light spooky fare, especially in this, the spookiest of seasons. But it’s ending upends much of the proceeding goodwill, as it delves into material that it frankly isn’t prepared to fully unpack or even earns. There is a version of this movie that I recommend with my full weight; as is, it comes with too big an asterisk to measure.