Writers: Jordan Wayne Long, Tara Perry and Sean Anthony Davis
Directors: Jordan Wayne Long and Matt Glass
This odd and unsatisfactory post-Civil War horror is redeemed only by the performance of lead actor Thomas Hobson. He goes some way in making you care about the people holed up in a fortressed town in Arkansas, but even he can’t shake off the feeling that Ghosts of the Ozarks is a subpar episode of The Walking Dead.
As Rick, Michonne and Carol have discovered many times in the hit zombie series, utopias are never what they seem. Societal perfection is always just a veneer in The Walking Dead, and hides the gruesome terrors that quickly turn these utopias into dystopias. In Ghosts of the Ozarks, the utopia is called Northfork (perhaps an ironic nod to the homestead in the iconic TV series Dallas), and Thomas Hobson’s character enters as its new doctor.
The Civil War may have just finished, but African Americans still had few rights, especially in a Southern state like Arkansas. Dr James McCune is correct to be wary of any white men who approach him on his journey to Northfork, summoned there by his uncle who rules it as governor. The night before he enters the gates a drunken white man is poised to attack James, but is scared away by a red mist that swirls around the forest. Once in the fortress James is amazed to see black and white people living side by side within Northfork’s wooden walls.
The red mist is the ghosts of Ozark, and they must be appeased if Northfork is to survive. But rather than ghost story, writers Jordan Wayne Long, Tara Perry and Sean Anthony Davis focus instead on the eccentric characters in the town. There’s the blind butcher who also runs the inn where James has a room. And there’s hunter Annie who soon becomes James’s assistant at the surgery when she’s not busy shooting game for the town.
Hobson expertly portrays a man who is caught between wonder and fear, and who is also worried that he won’t be able to live up to his uncle’s expectations. It’s also refreshing to see only a slither of a love interest between him and Annie. That James has his own dark secrets is shown in the way he stretches his arm in some kind of wind-up machine and in the way he’s sure to keep his sleeve down to hide the scars.
Those expecting a horror like Get Out or Amazon’s Prime series Them, which both use horror as a way to examine white privilege and racism, will be frustrated. Nevertheless, showing a tiny pocket of America unaffected by racism in 1868 is a political act in rewriting history. Representations of racial harmony in the past – even if fictional – can influence racial harmony in the future, but Ghosts of the Ozarks wears its politics lightly, perhaps too lightly.
Perhaps Jordan Wayne Long and Matt Glass’ film would work better as a series, where they can dwell more on characterisation than on action and give the more familiar actors (David Arquette and Phil Morris) more screen time. There is potential in this grubby utopia.
Signature Entertainment present Ghosts of the Ozarks on Digital Platforms 23rd May.