It's always nice to see a low-budget production execute a concept with efficiency and polish in a way that would make the big boys jealous. The Ghostmaker is one such flick. Ostensibly a supernatural thriller, it borrows ideas from sources as diverse as Flatliners, The Invisible Man and even Final Destination to say something about the dark depths of addiction. It may be light on scares overall but it manages to keep the tension high. This is largely thanks to the keen eye of writer/director Mauro Borrelli who puts every cent of the budget up on the screen for all of us to see.
After an ominous start filled with grainy internet footage hinting at what's to come, the film wastes no time in establishing the lead character of Kyle (Aaron Dean Eisenberg). He has a lovely girlfriend, Julie (Liz Fenning), works at a cleaning service part-time and is a real piece of work. When he isn't stealing money from Julie, he's taking advantage of his wheelchair-bound housemate Sutton (J. Walter Holland). All the thievery and penny-pinching starts to make sense when you realize that he also has a raging meth addiction. I'm talking about the sort of habit that has two dealers (Domiziano Arcangeli and Jeffrey Damnit) with crazy-eyes dogging him for payment.
When Kyle takes on the job of cleaning out the basement of a little, old lady, he finds more than he bargained for. Sitting under the piles of knick knacks is a coffin, ornate and ancient enough to be intriguing. Disregarding the old lady's advice to destroy the coffin, he takes it home hoping to sell it for some quick cash. During a cursory cleaning to spruce up the goods he locates an inner chamber of the coffin that features enough gears and levers to give any steampunk fan the warm tinglies. In short order, he has Sutton and another friend, Platt (Jared Grey) by his side wondering what the contraption does. Of course, they take turns getting into the coffin and winding up the little music-box assembly (wouldn't be much of a movie if they didn't).
The box demonstrates its terrifying utility by giving the guys out of body experiences. You see, as long as someone's physical self is in the coffin, his disembodied soul is free to go anywhere he pleases. The effect is temporary but it is real enough to present the trio with unanticipated possibilities. Kyle starts using his newfound ability to pull off small robberies to feed his addiction while Sutton uses it to spy on Julie whom he has an unrequited crush on. Only Platt seems concerned about what the box represents and what it is actually doing to their bodies. As the guys embark on their respective paths of discovery, they find out how far they are willing to go in order to possess an ability that no human being should have.
It's a telling sign that this film was originally called Box of Shadows. That title is more suggestive of the unspeakable motives that the central characters possess while The Ghostmaker sounds like a blunt, unimaginative horror film or the next Steven Seagal action flick (don't deny it). I can't very well ding the film for having a silly name but sometimes the marketing folks just get it wrong. In any case, I want to commend Borrelli for keeping the focus squarely on the conflicted characters no matter how unappealing their actions may be. Kyle is an extremely unlikeable character so it's no small feat that we are made to sympathize with him as larger monsters emerge late in the film.
Too many productions would have taken the clever central concept and choked it with unnecessary special effects and jump scares. Perhaps it's due to budgetary constraints but the effects here are deployed sparingly and with a great deal of impact. Certain creature effects have a creepy two-dimensional effect that never looks cheap and is in fact quite riveting. Elsewhere, the out-of-body effect for the guys is depicted with a bluish glow that is reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan (minus all the exposed dangly bits). It's utterly convincing and doubly shocking when you think about the limited resources at play here.
Strong visuals and an engrossing story make up for the fact that the performances are a bit hit or miss. Eisenberg seems a bit flat in his early scenes as Kyle but improves as the character's addiction comes to the forefront. Holland delivers on Sutton's growing menace while Grey is charming and funny as the inquisitive audience surrogate, Platt. Fenning isn't given as much to do but she has real screen presence. The only bits of casting that truly bothered me were Arcangeli and Damnit as the bothersome drug dealers. Both of them ham it up to such an extreme that their villainy feels a bit cartoonish. These are minor complaints for a film that largely holds together pretty well. The Ghostmaker is a solid little film that sets modest goals but achieves them admirably.
The image is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. While early scenes feature an intentionally bleached, pale effect the film soon settles into a more natural look. Black levels are decent while fine detail is more than acceptable in most shots. A few of the darker nighttime scenes do suffer from shaky shadow detail and fleeting grain. I also noticed a few instances of banding. With that said, the visual presentation was fitting for the material at hand.
The audio is presented in an English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix with optional English and Spanish subtitles. The mix is clean, functional and free of obvious defects. It capably presents dialogue while maintaining excellent directionality in the soundstage. All the eerie little musical cues (like the one employed for the coffin) come through with great effect.
We kick things off with a Commentary with Director Mauro Borrelli and Producers Ed Polgardy and Scott Rudolph. Polgardy leads the charge but is quick to engage Borrelli and Rudolph on a variety of topics. They discuss the various locations used as well as the casting process. There is also a very interesting description of how Borrelli painstakingly built the coffin that was used in the film. Altogether, this is one of those commentary tracks that is more educational than entertaining but it is still worth your while.
The next featurette is split into 3 parts as it goes Behind the Box: The Making of The Ghostmaker. Part 1(7:45) offers a mixture of interviews and behind the scenes footage as cast and crew discuss the concept for the film and its central themes. There is also discussion of how high production value is achieved with a limited budget. Part 2 (7:57) kicks off with praise for Borrelli who is famed for his visual effects and concept design work in the industry. Borrelli himself exposes the film as a metaphor for addiction. He also goes into the physical act of building the coffin. Part 3 (6:37) shows how cast members prepared for their roles.
We also get 6 Deleted Scenes, a Theatrical Trailer (1:28) and trailers for other films Also from Lionsgate.
Pay no attention to the generic horror movie title. There is a great deal more going on under the surface of The Ghostmaker than you may initially think. Director Mauro Borrelli cleverly uses the premise of a supernatural thriller to tell a tale of addiction and misguided power. The pleasant surprise is that the film actually works on both levels. Highly Recommended.