I was actually rooting for Ghost Light, John Stimpson’s new Shakespearean horror comedy to strike a chord with me , because — why wouldn’t I? Such a thing, well executed, would be pretty much everything I love all in a single package. It would also (if well executed) be a tour de force by definition. Those are a lot of boxes to check off: comedy, horror, Shakespeare. To integrate them all into a single well-made whole would take a good deal of wizardry. It’s not impossible or unprecedented. Charles Ludlam, for example, accomplished it with Stage Blood. But Ghost Light unfortunately falls far short of its commendable ambitions.
As Ludlam had sent up Hamlet in Stage Blood, Ghost Light ventures into the hazardous turf of MacBeth, specifically the famous curse associated with the name. Actors, a superstitious bunch, are terrified of saying the Thane’s handle aloud in a theatre unless it be within the context of a production. They invariably call it “the Scottish play”, lest they be visited by trouble. And there’s plenty of that to be had in a production of MacBeth, what with the typically atmospheric (dim) lighting and swinging of swords and such-like to cause injury and mischief. To be on the safe side, actors rarely risk awakening the curse. Except in Ghost Light, two actors (Tom Riley, Shannyn Sossamon) do so knowingly, recklessly, like Odysseus laughing Poseidon to scorn, and in so doing, unleash dark forces. Weird things, including ghostly spirits and death, plague their summer stock production in the Berkshire Mountains, and if that sounds pretty unimpressive thus far, it is.
MacBeth is one of Shakespeare’s goriest plays as well as one of his more supernatural ones, thus providing BOUNDLESS opportunity for Ghost Light to let ‘er rip in the two main subcategories of horror. The concept grants license to spill buckets of blood and kill off most of the cast, and to have enormous fun with ghostly special effects, and atmospheric settings. Even Jules White knew how to do THAT! But for some reason the film scarcely goes there. Perhaps the filmmaker was apprehensive about disturbing the comedy, but somehow there’s too little of that element as well. The opening beats are promising, as we see the faces of several beloved character actors come into the frame: Cary Elwes and Carol Kane as a couple of old hams, Scott Adsit as a stage manager. A few bravely cornball jokes indicate that we may be in for a fun ride on the order of Murder By Death or Clue. But we are rapidly dispelled of that expectation as, out of the cast of a dozen or so, Elwes and Kane are the only ones doing big characters. The others give the usual quotidian performances that mar so much contemporary Hollywood cinema. I forgot I was watching anybody even while I was WATCHING them. And as for the quips, they prove to be sparser in number as the plot unspools. Thus both terror and titters prove to be in short supply, as does a dramaturgical attempt to make the plot of Ghost Light mirror that of MacBeth, which it does a little but not enough to dazzle. Such quotation of Shakespeare as there is, however, is not unintelligent, a fact which will no doubt be appreciated at its official launch at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre and Library tonight. For information about other screenings, and how and where to stream it, go here.