This refreshing, surprising ghost story opens with a climactic scene that could come from an Insidious knock-off – as a family are driven from an isolated, affordable house by a spectral presence, who shows herself as Muriel (Natalie Walker), a pale-faced ghost who looks a little like a demented silent movie heroine in an effect achieved by lighting as much as make-up.
Then we are introduced to a character who all too rarely figures in haunted house movies – handyman Jack (MacLeod Andrews, from They Look Like People), whose job is to go into vacated properties and fix them up for the next tenants, who is surprised that the last lot left all their stuff behind. Ominously, the boss landlord asks Jack not just to see too minor repairs and check the wiring but to find out why a succession of tenants have quit the place without explanation. Jack is a kind of phantom himself, in that he’s forced to be away from his own apartment while his building is fumigated but none of the people he tries to cadge couch-space from bother to call him back … suggesting that he’s slipped into a kind of marginal existence, caring for places he has no emotional or financial investment in, and disconnected from humanity. As soon as Jack starts work, Muriel starts haunting him with a familiar repertoire – objects that move when he’s looking away, strange sounds in the night, disturbing dreams, cackling apparitions. She gloats when he’s driven from the house, but softens when he comes back because he literally has nowhere else to go – and then they start talking.
Debuting director Adam Stovall, who also co-wrote with Matt Taylor, riffs slightly on previous supernatural romances. There are nods to The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Beetle Juice, and a certain kinship with recent essays in the form like A Ghost Story and The Witch in the Window, but A Ghost Waits has its own distinct, winning personality. Shot in chilly monochrome, it stresses pale whites rather than stark shadows – in horror, only Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr has really taken than approach before – and establishes a limbo-like feel for its central relationship between living and dead spectres. Muriel, like Jack, has a remote boss who doesn’t feel obliged to explain the point of what she’s doing in the house, and a crisis comes about when Ms Henry (Amanda Miller), an afterlife bureaucrat like the Sylvia Sidney character in Beetle Juice, assigns a younger, more melodramatic spook (Sydney Vollmer) to put more pressure on Jack to quit the house. The writing and playing of the central characters is exceptional, with Andrews’ Jack intrigued enough by Walker’s Muriel to ask all the questions anyone could think of putting to her – ‘does it really bother you when we speak ill of the dead?’. This prompts Muriel to question her own place in an unknowable scheme of things.
A rich film in character and thematic strokes, it keeps doing unusual things. It’s rare for a screen character to express any satisfaction in doing a blue-collar job well, for instance, and this makes an interesting contrast with Girl on the Third Floor, in which the handyman is amateur and inept and provokes a female ghost to wrath rather than sympathy. For much of its running time, it could almost be a sit-com pilot, but the story leads to a challenging conclusion which shifts wry romance back into desolate horror territory at least for a spell … before a splendid, rapid-fire montage payoff that brings in a host of new, briefly-glimpsed characters. One of the strongest first features of recent years.