Ghost stories are a dime a dozen, especially at the height of the spooky season. It might seem like the horror sub-genre has little room for reinvention, but in offering a refreshingly earnest take on the haunted house story, A Ghost Waits tries to find new areas to haunt. The offbeat romantic comedy, directed by Adam Stovall in his debut, was met with rave reviews at Frightfest 2020, winning Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture.
Jack (MacLeod Andrews) is employed as a cleaner and caretaker for a house that, for reasons that soon become apparent, has been unable to retain a tenant for long. He washes, scrubs, tidies, and for the first portion of the film, we follow him as he goes about his domestic duties alone. Except he isn’t — cabinets keep popping open, his radio turns itself on, baby cries permeate the halls and the supernatural powers that be seem dead-set on inhibiting his work. He tells the poltergeists to knock it off — he has work to do — and has no patience for a haunting. Not today, Satan, or whoever it is plaguing the house.
Turns out her name’s Muriel (Natalie Walker), a wide-eyed ghost — ahem, spectral agent — who takes her task of habituating the house seriously but clashes with the soul-crushingly bureaucratic authorities of the afterlife. Muriel is far more tortured than her intended victims, as Jack has a glib sense of humor and lackadaisical attitude; they may seem like enemies, but soon enough strike up a conversation and find peculiar solace in each other.
Not the typical meet-cute, but it works for this indie rom-com which is as heartfelt as it is eerie. Set in a mostly empty house on an ultrasmall budget, A Ghost Waits is held aloft by the performances from its two leads, which are delicately affecting in their vulnerability and sweetness. They discuss metaphysical questions about the nature of hauntings and share a heart-to-heart as he asks with fascination about ghosts and whether she is happy roaming the earth the way she does. He roams the earth, too, and a romance slowly builds as these lost souls seem to have found their counterparts.
This will they/won’t they (and can they?) romance between man and ghost is a little too rushed to be fully convincing, and there is a pervading sense of impracticality to it all: the digital black-and-white aesthetic is stripped of life and color and the sound design is hollow. Some of the dialogue also feels painfully awkward as Jack has uncomfortable conversations with the pizza delivery man or his employers who don’t give a damn. Yet this perfectly captures the mundanity of Jack and Muriel’s jobs and the bleak bureaucracies they exist under, depicting a confusing struggle to try to make their lives, or afterlives, their own.
This ghost story has admirable makeup and effects, a sufficient helping of effective scares, and retains a gentle charm. While it’s not loud and in-your-face in its spooks, A Ghost Waits has an irreverence and sweetness to its tale that’s determined to bring a warm smile to your face if it doesn’t chill you to the bone.