The Unconventional Charms of ‘A Ghost Waits’

For nearly the first half-hour of A Ghost Waits, the recent release from Arrow Films made by director Adam Stovall, the film flirts with two familiar genres before a single moment takes the film somewhere endearing and wholly original.

Jack (MacLeod Andrews) cleans and does maintenance on rental homes, and his newest job is a place with an alarming rate of turnover, with residents leaving in the dead of night and not even bothering to pack their things. Over the course of a few days of cleaning, Jack discovers he is not alone, but the other person in the house isn’t quite… living.

That simple set-up could remind you of a thousand possibilities from The Haunting to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Where the story ends up, though, is what makes this low-budget but beautifully photographed horror-comedy-romance stand out, along with a pair of winning lead performances. They Look Like People, a 2015 film that co-stars Andrews, is a good comparison point. Both films boast similar-sized productions and embody the adage that “it doesn’t cost any more to be creative or original.”

While on its surface, A Ghost Waits is about a budding relationship between a home repairman and the ghost who haunts his most recent assignment, the film teases at surprisingly complex issues just underneath.

The film’s soft humour hides the pain of loneliness for both characters. Jack spends the film speaking to disembodied voices on the phone, people with whom he never interacts. A seemingly humorous moment where he has a conversation with a toilet belies his desperation to be seen by someone, to connect to someone. It’s no wonder, then, that the only one to respond to his outreach is the one trying to scare him into leaving.

Muriel, the ghost that haunts the home (she prefers the term ‘spectral agent’), struggles equally with her role: she is good at her job of haunting the home and scaring off the residents. Yet she is drawn to Jack, even though he is theoretically her enemy, the one who prepares the home for all the people she’s just going to have to chase away again. Actress Natalie Walker deftly balances that single-minded desire to scare with glimpses of confusion, vulnerability, and desire.

In clever ways, the film explores the confining nature of roles: she is enamoured of Jack but unable to let him stay in the house because it is her job to scare people away. Jack, on the other hand, is initially terrified but finds he is unable to leave because it is his job to stay and finish the inspection.

There is a series of Warner Brothers cartoons where a wolf and sheepdog come to work together every day, chit-chatting and exchanging pleasantries. Then, they punch the clock to start their workday, and they are now enemies: the wolf wants to steal the sheep, and the sheepdog needs to protect them. They play their roles and do their jobs, but when the workday is over, they are freed from the prison of professional expectation, and they can be friends again.

Jack and Muriel are trapped in a similar prison, wanting nothing more than to be together but barred from doing so by the demands of their positions. At its core, the film asks the most important question in life (and the afterlife): why do we do what we do? Do we choose our path in life because of who we are, or do we become who we are because of the path of our life?

It’s not all heavy going, though. In fact, for all its surprising dramatic weight, the film is at its best as an unconventional combination of paranormal romance and oddball workplace comedy. One scene, in particular, a montage sequence where Jack decides to ask Muriel every possible question you could want to ask about the afterlife, mines quiet comedy from his reaction as he receives increasingly disappointing answers.

Though there are other small roles, the film is essentially a two-hander appropriately set almost entirely within the walls of a rental home, the perfect symbolic setting for a story about the temporary and transient nature of life itself.

A Ghost Waits is a small indie film with a big heart and big ideas, one that is reminiscent in ambition and ingenuity to the early films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. It never continues down a straight path when it can zig or zag, and its themes are beautifully tied up in one of the most bittersweet, unconventional, and satisfying “take this job and shove it” moments in recent movie memory.

Like Jack, you won’t want to leave, either.

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