E.L. King calls Ghosts of the Ozarks an exciting concept with vast potential desperately failing to deliver any suspense.
The Southern gothic folk horror, Ghost of the Ozarks, directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October 2021. In the backwoods of Arkansas not long after the American Civil War, James McCune (Thomas Hobson), travels to the town of Norfork, deep in the Ozark Mountains. The colony appears to be a bi-racial sanctuary, James is a Black man, summoned by his uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) to become the new town doctor. The audience is set up with the knowledge that a baleful, supernatural presence lurks in the woods at the film’s onset.
“There was a time when there were no woods here, just a single tree but from one seed, an entire forest can grow. Only here the trees are not alone. There are ghosts in the woods.”
Ghosts of the Ozarks suffers for its excessively long runtime, its unintentional comedic moments, and its unsettling but lacking narrative. Co-written by Tara Perry—who plays Annie—and Long, with Sean Anthony Davis collaborating, the film is a sluggish historical horror-western that’s tone distinctly reminded me of Firefly (2002). The comedic flare of that series was not a planned addition to this film. It consistently broke any hope of immersion or suspense.
When we meet James, the air is thick with tension as Hobson narrates a letter from James’ uncle. On his way to Norfork, he becomes lost in the woods, his horse runs away, and he makes camp in the night. It’s not long before a burly white man carrying a large hunting knife appears out of the darkness, summoned by the light of James’ fire. It isn’t long before he mentions James’ assumed newfound freedom as a Black man and attacks him before a comically heavy red fog carries him away, screaming into the night.
The score makes drastic attempts to key up the suspense and while it’s haunting and beautifully eerie, the comical moments once again pull us out of the mystery and intrigue. There is a particular montage accompanied by a musical number, performed by the town bartender, Torb (Tim Blake Nelson), and Lucille (Angela Bettis), at the saloon piano. While this was incredibly distracting and laughable, impart due to the accent that Nelson had created for the character, the song tells a story about Norfork worth listening to, difficult as it may be. After that off-putting experience, the audience is expected to dive right back into the drama and mystery of the “ghost story”.
Hobson’s performance is a highlight, he expertly depicts James’ fearful and anxiety-ridden nature following what he endured before and during The Civil War. Despite its meandering story, all of the performances were enjoyable and well-executed, including that of David Arquette as Douglas, Norfork's last newcomer. While the story may be lackluster, Ghosts of the Ozarks does boast some beautiful cinematography, particularly the aerial shots overlooking the Ozark Mountains, production design, and costume designs by Brianna Quick. If you enjoy The Wicker Man (1973) and The Village (2004), this folk horror film might be for you but don’t expect the same level of tension and suspense.