In order to spare you the aggravation, I am going to spoil Ghosts of War (2020) right away: what you think is a strange combination of a World War II, er . . . epic (you cannot type high-pitched incredulity) with a straight-up horror flick, is actually a computer simulation for soldiers recovering from being wounded. Why am I doing this? Because this movie is dumb. Please feel free to stop reading at this point. For those of you who want to understand why it is bad, by all means carry on with this review.
Chris (Brenton Thwaites) awakens at the start of Ghosts of War to the sounds of nearby rustling in the woods of what is laughably called Nazi occupied France in the prologue. His four other squad mates lay sleeping nearby, but they soon get up too and they all head off for their destination. Along the way, they ambush a German vehicle, blowing it up, executing any survivors, and taking gold teeth from them. They also encounter a group of escaped Jews wandering the woods, which is all kinds of historically aggravating, but more on that later. Their destination is a large chateau deep in the forest. Upon arrival, they relieve a worried group previously guarding it. Now, five American troops with confusing unit insignia (again, more on this to come) must defend a veritable palace until they, too, are replaced. Apparently, war is a giant merry-go-round, but I digress. Not long into their stay at Chez Ghost (sorry, getting ahead of myself), odd things begin to happen. It is all your standard horror movie fare. There are things that go bump in the night, apparitions providing those all too predictable jump scares, and some references to creepy black magic to boot. At first, they are dismissive until each has their own personal encounter with the supernatural. And then, of course, a German patrol comes calling. Their initial idiotic plan is to lock the door and hope their enemies’ curiosity ends with finding their way into the house not so easily accessible. This seems to work until the house’s otherworldly occupants blow everything by making noise. In the ensuing firefight, one of their number, Butchie (Alan Ritchson) jumps onto a grenade and is mortally wounded. Outside of this deadly occurrence, these five American soldiers go all Rambo on their Germans and wipe them out to a man. Still, there are the hauntings with which to contend. At one point they begin to suspect that Tappert (Kyle Gallner), their sharpshooter, is somehow summoning these spirits because of the crazy combat stories he has and how he openly talks about enjoying evil. Yet, it is evident that it is beyond all their comprehension, and they decide to leave. For some reason, though, this leads them on a frustrating loop that borders on insane, and they soon give up and go back to the house, concluding that they need to be there to perform some as yet to be understood task. Further investigations, particularly using a diary that resident smart squad mate Eugene (Skyler Astin) found leads them to the bodies of the mansion’s original residents, people supposedly ritually tortured to death by the Nazis for hiding Jews. Once they are found, they give them a proper burial, believing they are helping them be at rest. But, no, that only seems to make them stronger and angrier. Now dealing with unstoppable, enchanted corpses (or something), Chris suddenly wakes up in a modern hospital facility. It is at this point where we learn that everything we have seen is part of simulation that their brains are all linked to following their modern day wounding while on patrol in Afghanistan. They had been summoned to evacuate a Muslim family sympathetic to their cause. Unfortunately, the Taliban shows up, and while they hide, the family is brutally murdered in a similar fashion to what they had seen in the simulation. Because they did nothing, one of the family members curses them while also acting as a suicide bomber, blowing up Chris’ squad. This curse seems to have followed him into the simulation, and his only solution is to go back into it to make amends for their actions. That is where the film ends. Yep, no resolution, just leaving off where it began.
I was confused a lot about the things that happened in Ghosts of War. Whoever was in charge of locations and costume designs should not be working on period films. Now, I saw this movie while scrolling through the options on Netflix, and I probably should have read the whole description that began with “Five, battle-worn Allied soldiers guarding a chateau previously occupied by Nazis,” where I stopped but actually ended with, “start experiencing unexplained and terrifying supernatural horrors.” Had I made it to the end of that sentence I probably would not have watched the movie. As it was, I thought I was in for a standard World War II movie, but that is where the frustration began. Two things caught my historian eye right away: that is not France they are in, and their unit patches are the kind of ridiculous that keeps graduate students from getting their degrees. The location is easy enough to understand. I am guessing whoever made this nonsense did not have the money to actually shoot in France, so they decided the foothills of Bulgaria were close enough. I mean, it is still Europe, right? The second part was a head scratcher. Any director worth their chair would hire somebody to make sure they get this little bit of cloth correct. They had both the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1stUnited States Infantry Division patches. History nerds like me, or anyone who lives in the greater Chicago area, will recognize the latter of these as the mark of the Big Red One. The former is pretty familiar as well. And for some reason the people who made this film thought they belonged on the same uniform? Finally, while I appreciate their desire to help Jews who seemingly ran away from a concentration camp, bear in mind that these were not found by the allies in France during the war. The only reason it is there is to make the squad more likeable, even though they had just murdered some defenseless German soldiers.
Another annoying aspect of Ghosts of War is the notion that putting soldiers into a simulation that involves combat is a way to help them deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is the epitome of absurd. The reasoning behind this program as provided by its developer, Dr. Engel (Billy Zane) is that it will provide them with familiarity and simplicity. Yeah, World War II was a real walk in the park compared to other wars. And the notion that one form of combat will make the other easier to deal with is awful as well. I am, admittedly, no expert on such matters. But as a spiritual director, I cannot ever imagine saying to a directee who has, for example, been wounded by a parent in some way that the one thing they need in order to get through that ordeal is more hurt from those closest to them. You pray for such people because prayer is healing, not tell them to experience more wounding. Ugh.
Do not watch Ghosts of War.