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“GHOUL” (2015; Movie Review)

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GHOUL set a genre box-office record in its opening weekend in its native Czech Republic, no doubt in part due to its appropriation of the true story of Soviet cannibal Andrei Chikatilo. One wonders how those audiences felt once they realized that Chikatilo’s presence largely amounts to name-dropping in the midst of a very familiar found-footage scenario.

The principally English-language film, opening in select U.S. cities tomorrow, makes a bid for historical relevance via an opening text screen informing us about flesheating resulting from famines under Stalin’s iron rule in the 1930s. In the present day, we watch through the cameras of Ryan (Paul S. Tracey), his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Armour) and his friend Ethan (Jeremy Isabella) as they arrive in Ukraine to shoot a project about 20th-century cannibalism, specifically seeking Boris Glaskov, an ex-con who once confessed under hypnosis to having consumed one of his victims. GHOUL does even less to develop characters for its documentarians than usual for this kind of movie, as they head out to a remote house with their interpreter Katarina (Alina Golovlyova), local contact Valery (Vladimir Nevedrov) and psychic Inna (Inna Belikova).

The location photography does a little to impart a sense of foreboding, though not enough to dispel the sense of déjà vu hanging over the movie. Not long after the group has settled in, they discover Ouija-esque symbols and lettering carved into a table’s surface, and soon they’re acting disrespectful and silly during an impromptu seance. We don’t see very much of this ritual, but apparently it’s enough to raise an ill-tempered spirit; in short order, Valery has disappeared with their only vehicle, no other way back to civilization is forthcoming and assorted spooky stuff starts happening, all of which elicits arguments, growing panic and lots of swearing from the stranded principals.

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As for Chikatilo, his name finally comes up 47 minutes into this 86-minute movie, and briefly seen on-line video of the crazy-eyed criminal carries more of a chill than any of the staged scary stuff around it. (For whatever reason, even though the Internet seems to work when nothing else in the house does, no one thinks to use it to call for help.) One of the characters describes him as “worse than Jeffrey Dahmer,” and GHOUL does so little with the specifics of Chikatilo’s case (already very well-dramatized in CITIZEN X, adapted with Malcolm McDowell as EVILENKO and about to be re-explored in CHILD 44) that it could just as well have been about Dahmer, or any other real or fictional cannibalistic baddie. For all the onscreen discussion of horrific history, writer/director Petr Jákl and co-scripter Petr Bok don’t explore it in any meaningful way; it’s just window dressing for the usual round of possessions, unearthed totems, buried personal secrets revealed and evil passed down through generations.

As such, the vérité stylings result in a few modest jolts and creepy bits, but little that hasn’t been seen dozens of times since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT first took handheld cameras out into the woods. At times, we watch the characters watching footage, an ineffective one-degree-removed gambit given that there’s little reason to identify with these increasingly hysterical, foolish people. At least there’s a reasonable explanation for them to continue taping when the going gets dangerous: They need the cameras’ lights and night vision to see once darkness falls, though we don’t get a good enough look at the grisly payoffs once they eventually arrive.

GHOUL rather surprisingly boasts names like Hollywood honcho Rob Cohen (director of THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY) and WRONG TURN 2/EVERLY helmer Joe Lynch among its executive producers, and it’s hard to know what attracted them to a project that ultimately offers nothing new to the supernatural/mock-doc horror subgenres. Well, that’s not entirely true: This is the first movie I can recall with subtitles for the readings off a foreign-language Ouija substitute, so there is that.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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