Thoughts on “The Ghost Beyond”

This movie really drove home a point for me: confusion is not scary.

I’ve have mentioned on several occasions my frustration with a lot of horror works and their tendency to not explain what is going on. Sometimes it seems more like they believe that the unknown is more frightening, and so they reveal as little as possible to keep people scared. As I’ve again noted on many occasions the problem is that letting the protagonist and/or the audience know what’s going on can be far more frightening, as at least the audience can see things and note what they mean, and so see what’s coming, and thus builds anticipation. Often this works best if the audience is clued into what these things mean but the character we are watching isn’t. One of the best movies for this, in my opinion, is actually the original “Blair Witch Project”, as it uses the introduction documentary sections to inform us on the characters and the details of the witch, and then when they get lost and we see things like the bundles of sticks we are quite aware that they’re in deep trouble. So horror doesn’t work best in a complete vacuum, as oftentimes us knowing the details of the horror scares us even more, and it avoids confusing us. That being said, if done properly it isn’t necessary. As I noted with “Happy Death Day”, we don’t find out what the deal is with the time loop, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not what the movie is about and so is something that we can ignore.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if there’s another reason why these movies tend to shy away from details and explanations, and if that’s something that it has in common with other fields like mysteries and dramas. A lot of the time, they seem to want to go for surprises or twists in their stories. But because of this, it seems that their greatest fear is that the surprise or twist will be “spoiled” by the audience figuring it out before they reveal it. And either lacking confidence in their ability to keep the secret or else being incompetent, what they do is decide to keep it hidden by simply not telling the audience what they’d need to know to figure it out. The problem with doing this, though, is that it can feel cheap when they reveal the twist that we couldn’t have figured out from what they told us in the movie. The best twists are the ones where you can rewatch the movie and find all the evidence that pointed to the twist, but that you never noticed or, not having the proper context, just didn’t interpret the right way. In fact, some of the best movies to use twists often go back and either explain or show all the evidence that you should have noticed to come to the right conclusion. Mysteries are, of course, famous for that, and are also the genre where the audience will hold the writers the most stringently to having the twists follow from what the movie has told the audience.

So the writers often seem to take the tack of keeping their twists and secrets simply by not telling the audience enough to let them figure it out. This can work if the movie is not about the twist but is about other things that the twist ties itself into. The risk for this in horror movies in general, though, is that if you try to make the audience interested in the mystery behind the horror but then don’t reveal anything about it to preserve that mystery, you can end up confusing the audience, as they stop in the middle of your suspense and horror to ask “Wait, what? Why is it doing this? What does it want? This doesn’t seem to make sense!”. Even if it’s done as Fridge Logic after the movie, it can leave a bad taste in the audience’s mouth as they remember the movie as being less horrific and more confusing.

“The Ghost Beyond”, however, manages to trigger those thoughts during the movie instead of after, which is far worse.

The main plot is a cut-rate version of “The Shining”. An author and his family move to a small town so that he can work on his novel, the advance of which is paying for, well, everything. The family consists of him and his wife and son. As they examine the house, the realtor says that she is required to tell them the story of a young girl who ended up locked in her toy box and eventually starved to death, but only after eating some of her dolls out of hunger, with additional rumours that the house is now haunted. There’s a seemingly friendly handyman who befriends the young son and gives him something to protect him, and then the son starts experiencing supernatural events, mostly centered around the dolls and an entity that they fear which is hinted to be the spirit of the little girl. Meanwhile, the father suffers Writer’s Block and degenerates into an angry and dangerous man, putting his wife and son at risk, as the entity builds towards its final purpose.

But as you might guess, we don’t really know what that purpose is. What she does at the end is capture at least the father and son in dolls, and the implication is that she still eats the heads of them. But we have no idea why or what the purpose is. She just … does it. Additionally, the handyman is in fact in league with her, as he was drugging the father with locally made whiskey and the talisman he gave the son actually encouraged hallucinations. The problem here is that we never find out why. Why does he do that? What does he get out of it? Why does the entity work with him? So his role is very confusing, and even worse the twist that they were trying for doesn’t even work because it’s so obvious. He gives the father the whiskey and we see the father drinking it as he degenerates (the movie is very pointed on that point). He also gives the son the talisman but we see the son use it early in the movie and it does nothing, so at that point the handyman is either evil or stupid. Once he gets the mother to use it as well it isn’t credible that he’d be that stupid, so evil it is. Since we have thus figured out that he’s evil, we immediately start wondering why he is working with the entity, and then we get to the ending where it’s clear that he’s doing it again and instead of feeling horrified all we are is really confused about why he does it and keeps doing it, ruining even that part of the twist.

One of the other issues — possibly related to not wanting to spoil the twist — is that while the father’s degeneration is a key horrifying part of the movie, the movie rarely lets us see him. Instead, it focuses on the mother and her son, and mostly on the mother. While the mother is a far more interesting character, she also has very limited plot relevance, and so we don’t get to see any of the details of the father’s corruption. Moreover, she doesn’t seem particularly surprised by the father’s angry outbursts, and the father is not exactly nice right from the beginning, so it makes him seem more like an abusive father than like a good person corrupted by various things. And his being corrupted doesn’t really play into the plot at all; it’s not the case that his corruption is what allows the entity to capture him and the son, for example. So we don’t know what happens to him or why, and what happens to him is not critically important to the plot and arguably could have been cut out entirely without losing much from the movie. Other than being a reference to “The Shining”, then, it doesn’t do much and being a reference to “The Shining” can only remind us of a movie and story that actually did that plot better (and that’s even taking into account that the movie was flawed itself).

Ultimately, as I said, the movie itself is confusing at its very best, and that confusion really hurts the movie. We spend more of our time wondering what’s going on than in being scared by the horror or gasping at the twists, and the twists are obvious themselves. This is definitely a movie where more explanation of what was going on could only have helped, as it could have made us feel more horror or even sympathy rather than the confusion that we did get. I can’t imagine watching this movie again.

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