Review: ‘Ghost Light’ (very superstitious)

Doth not dis thine Scottish Play.

At a Massachusetts retreat, a traveling acting troupe arrives to put on a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, “the cursed play.” Former soap opera star Alex (Cary Elwes) is the questionably talented financier — a status benefiting him the starring role and immunity against being fired. Alex’s distracted wife Liz (Shannyn Sossamon) plays the queen — whenever she isn’t drinking or catting around with brash understudy Thomas (Tom Riley). Along with a cast of veteran actors (Carol Kane, Steve Tom) and a few up-and-comers waiting for fame, the New England production endures strange circumstances that quickly turn into close-calls and near-misses. After failing to heed accepted tradition, the transgressors soon discover they know not what they hath done…

Ah, the Haunted Comedy. From Ghostbusters to Beetlejuice to The Frighteners, this blending of genres dates back to Abbot and Costello meeting various Universal Monsters and more. Fortunately, they don’t all have to be big-budget concepts, but the best usually require a unique spin to add something new. Ghost Light focuses on theater tropes, specifically the superstitions of the stage, and “The Scottish Play” is chock full of them. Like any good body-count horror film, there’s always a transgression to be over-punished for, but how well can a cursed production set in a tiny countryside theater play into a feature-film format?

Advertising echoes the 1974 film House of Seven Corpses, where a small crew and actors film at the actual location of an occult-related mass murder, eventually mirroring the events they’re shooting a movie about. Similarly, this new production plays at mistaking actual gore for mere special effects, but because both are fully entrenched in the supernatural, a lot of leeway is granted. Utilizing misdirection of underlying causes and winking at impossible explanation, Ghost Light combines lighthearted character and competitive nature with throwing caution into the wind to delight, amuse, and effectively disturb.

The cast is a hoot, for lack of a better term. Roger Bart and Scott Adsit play the director and his assistant, desperately keeping the production (and their opinions of various cast members) in check. Carol Kane and Steve Tom charm with their mentoring ways as “the show must go on” theater veterans. The triangle of Elwes, Sassamon, and Riley is more than what it seems, although Sassamon is too often notably typecast in this kind of role. The later arrival of Danielle Campbell’s character Juliet is an interesting and intentional distraction that plays into the overall narrative. Clever and enjoyable, each intentional character archetype gets upended as the story tragedy unfolds.

Directed by John Stimpson and co-written with Geoffrey Taylor, independent yet professional productions that think this big are few and far between. Take for example Safety Not Guaranteed, a Aubrey Plaza indie vehicle that knew how and where to budget their film to jaw-dropping effect in the best possible way. While wide spaces and sweeping vistas are hallmarks of epic films, sometimes the intimacy of a theater the size of a one-room schoolhouse can provide a superior focus when all the world’s a stage. Just beware what you allow into the theater with you; it’s a kind of magic.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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