Imagine a version of Big Brother in which contestants stayed in a German concentration camp, and deliberately disrespected the dead – by wearing their uniforms, sleeping in their beds, goading their ghosts to come back from the dead, and smashing up their bones. Kind of repellant, isn’t it? Some of Big Brother’s recent tasks have verged on the torturous – the one where contestants had to lie in a swimming pool filled with dead fish on a hot day, and then were denied access to the bathroom, springs to mind – but you can’t imagine any real reality TV show locking people up in a prison and forcing them to confront the remains of the people who died there. That’s sort of the premise of Ghost Game, though: eleven contestants are locked inside a war museum that used to be a Khmer Rouge prison where some 17,000 people were tortured and killed, then forced to play games that will supposedly invoke the wrath of the dead. The idea is to push people to the limits of their sanity by forcing them to confront extreme fear – the last one standing wins an exorbitant amount of money, and the viewing public gets to watch people going slowly insane. Nice.
If anyone actually tried to make anything like this, I suspect OFCOM would be shutting down the production within about 5 minutes. But perhaps that’s why Ghost Game has apparently been banned in Cambodia.
There are two aspects to the film, really: one is the reality TV show schtick, with all the insanely bad taste shenanigans that go with it, and the other is a ghost story. The first part might be intended to be a sort of parody or indictment of the kind of reality TV show that does actually get produced; the second is just woefully generic. I imagine that something has been lost in translation, though; I don’t quite feel like I have the relevant cultural framework to slot this movie into. Obviously, watching foreign movies is always a bit like that – some of the nuance will always be lost, and some of the cultural resonance will always be missing. Ghost Game seems rather more baffling than most, though.
Part of the problem might be that there are eleven contestants, so it’s reminiscent of the first couple of weeks of Big Brother in which there are just far too many people to remember, and you just have to wait it out till some of them have been voted out so that only a manageable number remain. Part of it was that I couldn’t figure out whether the contestants in the game really believed in ghosts or not – on entering the prison at the beginning, contestants are asked to remove any protective amulets they might be wearing in order to fully expose themselves to spirits, which would suggest yes, but on the other hand, surely no-one would be daft enough to sign up to this kind of mental torture if they really believed ghosts might come to get them? Part of it, too, was that the concept of the reality game was a little too far fetched – Battle Royale seems realistic by comparison, because while it’s just about possible to accept that people might happily watch a group of kids killing one another, it’s not so easy to swallow a viewing audience watching genocide victims being disrespected. Quite apart from questioning the motives of the filmmakers, it’s hard to suspend disbelief that, in the film, some censor wouldn’t show up to halt production.
And the other part was that I couldn’t stop running down a mental list of where I’d seen everything before. The film’s quite long, for what it is (100 minutes) and nothing really happens until the final 20 minutes: just a lot of white-faced ghosts showing up to go “boo!” It’s a lot like The Grudge, really – lots of spooky imagery not really tied together properly or justified by anything. And yet it’s still sort of scary, if you’re the sort of person who’s spooked by soggy dead girl ghosts (and I am). The first ghost shows up 14 minutes in, and from then on they just don’t stop, sometimes showing up in their dozens. Bizarrely, the more ghosts there are, the less scary they become; I’m not sure why, but I’m reminded of a scene in a Korean film called R-Point, where a group of soldiers end up stranded at a cursed base. There’s one part where someone does a head count and discovers there’s one more person than there should be – they’ve been walking around with a ghost in tow! The ghost doesn’t look scary – he just looks like one of the men – and there’s only one of him, but that moment is absolutely terrifying. Yet show me ten or so ghost soldiers sitting on a man and holding him down, and somehow, I’m not scared.
Mostly, I just feel a bit battered now. Ghost Game doesn’t really let up: you see ghosts right from the beginning, and you keep seeing them all the way through; no-one dies and nothing gets violent until the final 20 minutes, by which time I was counting the seconds off till the credits rolled. There are actually some really nasty, gory death scenes in those last few minutes, but the pacing is so bizarre it just threw me off balance. For most of the film, there are scares which aren’t exactly fake-outs, because ghosts show up, but no-one dies until the final scenes, so the ghosts just feel sort of impotent. Some really standard, seen-it-a-thousand-times shots show up (the shadow that flits in front of the camera suddenly, ghosts hiding around every corner – and even under the table, a la The Grudge, again), and the bog standard spooky ooky music played almost constantly. But there’s no time to relax, no time to process anything, no chance to get to know any of the characters; it’s as if there wasn’t a sturdy enough framework to hang all the scares on. Reality TV would make a great subject for a really terrifying story, and yet despite many attempts – My Little Eye, Ben Elton’s Dead Famous – no-one has quite, yet, pulled it off. Ghost Game doesn’t manage it either, but if you’ll settle for an unrelenting stream of Ring-wannabe ghosts, you might be happy with this.
As far as extras go, the disc isn’t exactly generous – there’s the theatrical trailer, a pack of trailers for other movies, and a documentary in which everyone who did anything on the movie, including the guys who blew the fake smoke around and the make up artist, says about two sentences before being cast off in favour of someone else. There’s a great section where audience members give their reactions, but after the first five who all say they were petrified, had to watch through their fingers, and felt their hearts racing in their chests, it quickly gets samey. The whole documentary is peppered with clips from the movie, which is just sort of exhausting, considering you probably wouldn’t watch the extras till after watching the film.