Exploring themes of guilt and grief creatively and compellingly, “The Ghost Lights” is moody and well-paced with solid writing and acting.
Written and directed by Timothy Stevens (Tales from the Tombstone), what The Ghost Lights lacks in budget, it makes up for with plenty of heart. You probably hear that about a lot of lower-budget offerings. But in this case, it’s really true. The Ghost Lights is a maturely written and surprisingly good ghost story.
Starting out in glorious black and white, we get a lovely, creative opening credits sequence showing a cool-looking photographer strutting through some ruins in what appears to be a ghost town or similarly derelict area in the American Southwest.
We then cut away to the protagonist, Alex (Katreeva Phillips), a “big city journalist” having both work and family drama on her way to a funeral she learns she already missed.
She winds up in a suburban area (decorated for Halloween) and at the empty home of her deceased father, a journalist of sorts himself who apparently died from alcoholism. She discovers a few of his belongings, including a notebook and a mysterious cassette tape labeled “The Ghost Lights – October 15, 1978” (which just so happens to be “today” in the film over 40 years later).
Alex then listens to the tape, which is her father, Arthur “Art” Bennett (John Francis McCullagh), interviewing a man named Mario (Billy Blair, 3 From Hell). Marios is a resident of Terlingua, a ghost town in West Texas just outside the Mexico border.
There’s a nice transition to a (once again black & white) flashback to the interview.
We soon realize that the photographer from the title sequence was none other than the protagonist’s father.
Mario proceeds to give a brief family history before discussing the phenomenon of the ghost lights, which he first saw when he was 10, a description eerie enough to spook his daughter into fleeing the house after she thinks she hears some sounds outside.
Flash forward to Alex now listening to the tape in the airport the next day as she awaits her flight back to the city.
The B&W flashback returns as Mario continues to talk about the lights with Art, speculating about what they could possibly be, including aliens, Nazi spies, pockets of gas, or the spirits of Apache warriors.
Mario says his mother was reluctant to talk about the lights, not only because people who got too close to them would sometimes disappear but because she didn’t want to give them any power by talking about them. Thus, she simply tells her family they are dangerous.
Mario then tells Art that he knows about the disappearances because his father was one.
Of course, all this piques the curiosity of Art’s daughter, who decides to pick up the story and use it for her magazine after she looks up Mario on the internet; it appears he may still be alive.
There’s a solemn moment when she stops by her father’s grave, promising to finish the story he started. Then it’s off to find Mario, with some groovy music to accompany her on the trip.
In fact, the soundtrack is excellent throughout the film and helps keep the action moving forward.
The score also adds plenty of atmospheric chills, right where it belongs.
In another flashback scene, we are about to learn from Mario just why he thinks his father’s disappearance was unnatural. Then something terrifying happens — the tape suddenly switches from Art’s interview with Mario to what sounds like Art being recently interrogated, under duress, by a mysterious stranger.
Art insists he knows nothing, but his interrogator presses on, saying he already got some information from Mario. The horror ramps up as Art addresses Alex by name directly and says, “Don’t tell them anything.”
The interrogation then fizzles and returns to the interview/flashback for a brief moment before Alex realizes she is being followed by (who else?) a man in black (Timothy Stevens).
She stops at a gas station and hides in the restroom, but soon the baddies make their intentions known, telling her through the bathroom door that “they” know about the tapes and are going to get her. So, what does she do? She decides to continue listening to the tapes — in the restroom — an odd decision, seemingly, but maybe they can offer some clue as to how to deal with her pursuers.
The tapes don’t offer much more information, but the sound of her father being defiant during his interrogation gives her courage, and she presses on toward her destination.
Stopping at a hotel for a quick shower (because Horror Movie) and a nap, poor Alex awakens to the sounds of her father’s ghost typing a message to her on his typewriter (that she happened to bring with her for nostalgia) just before the baddie comes a-knockin’.
I have very few gripes about this film, which is fairly engaging despite its flaws.
I can’t really complain about the protagonist spending the next several scenes in her skivvies, though a few of my more feminist contemporaries might; let’s just call it body positivity and move on.
Some of the more questionable directorial decisions include the low-budget movie cliches of using still photographs to accent several stretches of dialogue and perhaps using the “video glitch” a time or two too many.
Also, I couldn’t pinpoint Art’s accent, but those Southern twangs can be pretty tricky.
But that’s really it as far as nitpicks go.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it wraps up nicely. Just try to have a little grace with some of the more glaring aspects of the film’s low budget, and you may enjoy The Ghost Lights as much as I did, even if you don’t really get to see any till the very end.
It’s a little light on the scares but features a decent plot and a nice, ghostly twist. Definitely check it out if well-wrought slow burns with short running times are your thing.