Cary Elwes Takes on the Curse of Macbeth in GHOST LIGHT (LA Film Fest Review)

There are few things good actors like more than playing bad actors, possibly because it allows them to exaggerate their own insecurities, or perhaps because they finally get to do that pitch-perfect impersonation of somebody they once worked with who was less than stellar. It’s Cary Elwes‘ turn in Ghost Light, as he plays a Ned Flanders-ish soap opera star named Alex Pankhurst who’s using his money to fund a traveling Shakespeare troupe with himself in the lead. His hair and mustache are as impeccable as his talent isn’t, and his wife Liz (Shannyn Sossamon) is sleeping with his understudy Thomas ( Da Vinci’s Demons star Tom Riley). That guy is better looking and more talented, but also a huge jerk.

The rest of the group are affable but dysfunctional: frazzled director Henry (Roger Bart), English MAH-ster thespian couple Elliot (Steve Tom) and Madeline ( Carol Kane with a hilarious fake accent), recently separated gay couple Troy (Sheldon Best) and Nigel (Alex Portenko), recently hooked-up and super-passionate straight couple Annabel (Caroline Portu) and Jason (Nolan Gerard Funk), and long-suffering stage manager Archie (Scott Adsit). It wouldn’t be hard to base a sitcom around them, but while Ghost Light is primarily a comedy, the movie has a different fate in mind for its principals. The primary concern here is the curse of Macbeth, the play whose lead character and title you aren’t supposed to say aloud except as part of rehearsal, lest bad luck befall the production. Thomas, upset that he has to play second fiddle to a famous face he considers a total hack, is the one who indignantly utters the name, along with Liz, as they vent their spleens and other things in private.

In short order, a beautiful backpacker named Juliet (Danielle Campbell) mysteriously finds her way to the boarding house the troupe are inhabiting, supposedly following an outdated online tourism guide. And while she’s not obviously the source of strange visions that Liz and Thomas start having, she does catch the latter’s libidinous eye. Meanwhile, Liz starts finding the lines between her role of Lady Macbeth and her real life increasingly blurred, as visions of her hands being blood-soaked intrude at regular intervals, and she decides maybe it would be a good idea to question Thomas’ manhood until he kills her husband. Said husband does suffer a random bump on the noggin from a falling beam, at which point he magically becomes as gifted an actor as, well, Cary Elwes.

If you’re wondering whom to root for here, keep wondering. The story positions Thomas as the protagonist, but there’s nothing much to like about him. And Alex isn’t much of trade upward: he’s generous with his money, but he’s also an egomaniac who pressures his wife into sex when she doesn’t want it. Henry is really the only guy working towards a positive goal, and if the movie were structured as his story it might have been stronger, but he takes a back seat to Thomas having scary visions.

Director-cowriter John Stimpson sets things up so much more like a comedy (well-lit scenes, jaunty upbeat score by Ed Grenga) than a scare flick that it’s disconcerting (and not in the deliberate way) when, in the last twenty minutes or so, there’s suddenly very real danger for all the characters. Sure, there have been ghostly visions and a goofy, highly aborted attempt at murder played for laughs earlier, but when a major character actually dies violently, it feels like a drastic tonal shift. The film goes all-out with its visual effects budget during these final moments, and they’re fun to look at, but they feel like a different movie. It’s like a very special Halloween episode of Friends suddenly becomes Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Horror-comedy is a tricky thing; the best of them either make the supernatural forces as absurd as the victims, or keep the danger dead serious while focusing on how comedic characters would react. Ghost Light takes about half of its characters seriously, but they’re primarily the most unlikable ones. As a result, while the movie has many enjoyable moments, they ultimately don’t cohere as well as they should.

2.5 out of 5.

Images: H9 Films via LAFF

Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association, yet he just figured out that Star Trek‘s “Dagger of the Mind” episode title is a Macbeth reference. You can find him on  all the  usual social  channels.

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