In movie reviews, I tend be vague about the film’s final act to best preserve the experience for new viewers. But sometimes a movie’s third act is so infuriating and toxic that spoilers are a public service announcement. So with that in mind, here’s my spoiler-filled review of the trash horror-thriller Broken Ghost, detailing its faux-feminist politics and explaining its deeply insulting ending.
We’ll go by degrees, so you can decide how much you want to know before you decide if you should see or skip this one.
Directed by Richard Gray, Broken Ghost follows the Day family as they follow that well-trod road of horror tropes. Running from a troubled past, they seek a fresh start in a new life in a quiet rural community. Their house is big and unique, its yard punctuated with eccentric sculptures, its ceilings peopled with angel sketches, its attic plagued by a strange rumbling. “It’s not ghosts,” painter Will Day (Nick Farnell) gruffly assures his wife Samantha (Scottie Thompson) and teen daughter Grace (Autry Haydon-Wilson). But it’s hard to deny something strange is going on in the house. The TV turns on when no one’s in the room. Objects seem to move on their own. And at night, Grace hears someone hissing her name. Making matters more ominous, Grace discovers that previous tenants were murdered by their painter patriarch, who snapped over his resentment of having to care for his child and wheelchair-bound wife.
Less minor spoilers
On its surface, Broken Ghost seems like it might be an Amityville Horror story. A man’s thwarted ambition and frustrations over family obligations fester are sparked into a deadly rage by a sinister spirit. Will gets easily ruffled, taking even a mild comment from his daughter as a scorching criticism. He often explodes into tantrums. He feels like a failure on just about every front. His painting career hasn’t yet taken off, so his pharmacist wife is the family’s chief breadwinner. But he struggles to find inspiration. That is until he uncovers a hidden murder mural, which depicts and idyllic field next to a cold forest where the late artist created grisly portraits of his murdered family. But this presence in the house plagues Will, throwing up noisy distractions while he’s trying to work and triggering quarrels between him and his sexually frustrated wife, who used to be his nude and happy muse. See, Will can’t perform in the studio or in the bedroom. It seems the latter is because of some addiction to porn, as he keeps sneaking saucy videos that earn him scolding from Samantha. But the real reason is far more cringe-worthy and shows how Will is a failure as a father too.
Early on, we know the Day family is running from a scandal so salacious that Grace has changed her name and her dad has become a nervous wreck. It’s a creeper classmate who reveals to us this secret: Grace (A.K.A. Imogen) was in a sex tape. While the sex was consensual, its recording was not. But that didn’t stop bullies from pushing her to self-harm and chasing her to flee the life she knew. With a new name, a bad dye job, and some spray-tan, this teen girl tries to start over. But even if she’s ready to move on, her dad is not.
Those porn vids that Will’s been watching? That’s him trying to make sure her video hasn’t resurfaced. That doesn’t explain why he watches them with the volume on, or why he watches them at all. Thumbnails are useful! However, it is meant to explain why Will can’t perform with his wife. Being frankly faced with his daughter’s emerging sexuality, he has gone impotent. It’s a mental block that he’ll blame first on Samantha, claiming she’s not supportive enough of his work. Then he blames Grace to her face, claiming not only that her video is why he can’t bed her mom, but also why her mom sought sexual gratification with a bearded drifter. “Ever since that f***cking video surfaced, I can’t function,” he yells, “I’m not a man, so I can’t work.” In this blame-throwing frenzy, Will even pulls a gun on his wife and child, but he fires it at the ceiling, leading to the film’s final, most shocking, and stupidest reveal.
Will was right. There is no ghost. Instead, it’s a squatter on the run after killing a pair of bikers who were his criminal colleagues. Yup. This is another “boy in the walls” movie. This twist is revealed after Will fires that shot into the ceiling. The family goes to bed, and Grace hears a raspy voice call her name while blood drips onto her from a light fixture. She goes to the attic and has a confoundingly casual conversation with the intruder, treating him like a trusted friend. Flashbacks reveal wanted killer Jason Adair (John Teague) creeping around the house’s crawl space to spy on porn-surveying dad, unsatisfied mom, and suicidal Grace. Why did he torment her parents? Unclear! All he’ll say is he stuck around because Grace seemed like she could use some help. And why ask further questions of the murderous mother***er lurking in your walls?
Ignoring a bunch of loose ends, Broken Ghost rushes to build an unlikely bond, suggesting this killer is a better father figure than Will. Which, maybe, but that’s a low bar. Will felt impotent in his attempts to protect Grace, which impacted his creativity and sex drive. So he took out his frustrations on his wife and child. He is a failure as a father, husband, and a man. But Jason, who is more traditionally masculine, succeeds where Will fails. He’s a macho biker who uses his fists to protect Grace, his hard dick to please Samantha, and his gun to kill those who invade his space. In Broken Ghost, what defines a man is f***ing and fighting. Yet this toxic masculinity aside, Jason is unexpectedly the one who encourages Grace to overcome the shame of her video.
Though Jason’s existence is revealed to the audience after Will’s violent outburst, Grace has known about him since the night she tried to hang herself. He pulled her off the noose. Then, off-camera the two apparently had a pow-wow that was sex-positive and therapeutic. The next morning, Grace washes off the spray tan and hair dye, reclaiming her body and identity as Imogen. In a bold red dress, she marches unafraid into a confrontation first with her bully then with her slut-shaming father. She is empowered and will no longer let other’s shame and hang-ups define her! And that’s a great message even if it comes from a deeply flawed source. But it’s hard to take this message too seriously when Broken Ghost relishes in Male Gaze to ogle naked women, including Grace, her mom, and a slew of nameless teens in Will’s porn searches. Plus, the fates of her parents assert grossly regressive gender politics.
Before Jason leaves, he’ll get a bit of sexist payback against the unfaithful Samantha. While Grace is graverobbing in her backyard to aid Jason’s escape, Samantha awakes and goes in search of her missing daughter. Jason lures Samantha too him by playing a music box. Rising into the attic, she is shocked to discover a trail of blood leading to the handsome stranger who f***ed her on a roadside, abandoned her there, stole narcotics from her pharmacy, and then outed their affair to her husband through ghostly TV shenanigans. Samantha jumps back in alarm, falling through the trap door and severing her spine on the way down. She lands on the floor, her bare legs sprawled and immobile beneath her exposed panties. She is on display as sexual but broken. And instead of getting her help, Grace gives Jason a set of motorcycle keys. Broken Ghost seems to count this as the price paid for a woman’s infidelity. Samantha sought sexual gratification outside of her marriage, and now she can’t feel anything below her waist. Meanwhile, her sex partner will ride off into the sunset to start a new life, squat, f***, and attack another day.
And what does Will get for his outbursts and violence? Peace. The final sequence displays a sun-dappled field with a whispering river. There we find Will. No longer angry or uninspired, he paints a portrait of his smiling wife, who sits posed in a wheelchair overlooking the water. Dreamy music swells as this family now resembles the painting left behind by the house’s former artist-in-residence. Will had said the forest portion of the painting showed a path of carnage and chaos that led to the murder of the painter’s wife and child. The other was a path, he insisted, was one of peace. This path is one where the power dynamic for the Days has shifted dramatically. With Jason gone, Will is the man of the house once more. And moreover, he has reclaimed his wife by making her an object of his art, one that deals not with her naked body and sexuality, and thereby his own insufficiencies. Instead, she’s displayed with a more humble femininity that he doesn’t find threatening.
In the end, Broken Ghost wants to sell Grace’s story as a tale of female empowerment in which a teen girl rejects slut shaming and reclaims herself in the face of sexist bullying. But that story is undermined by the arcs of her parents. Her mother faces scorn, outrage, and ultimately a violent comeuppance for her extramarital mistake. But her father, who was verbally abusive, emotionally cruel, and physically threatening, faces no retribution for his errors. We don’t see Will between when he lowers his gun and when he’s in a field with a paintbrush. He leaps right from a low point to “peace,” with no need to change or even apologize. Which is a path all too familiar to those of us who observe the paths of abusers. Shame Broken Ghost doesn’t see how scary that is.
Broken Ghost is available on VOD February 12.