I don’t do horror. I don’t enjoy being startled, or shocked, or terrified. But I do enjoy clever premises, and I did enjoy lead actor Anna Ishida in The Fourth Messenger, so it didn’t take too much for my friend Josephine to convince me to go see I Am a Ghost, by indie filmmaker H.P. Mendoza.
The premise of I Am a Ghost is spelled out in its title: rather than a story where the main characters are haunted by ghosts, we have a story where the main character is the ghost, with only a tenuous connection to the “real world” or “present day” through the voice of a medium. The protagonist, Emily, doesn’t particularly want to be haunting the house, so the story is about untangling her history and figuring out why she can’t move on. The ending is…well, I was going to say it’s not typical for stories like this, but I just said this already isn’t following the usual pattern. Let’s say it’s not a definitive ending.
The story was indeed interesting, and it’s set in a beautiful old house—actually a B&B on South Van Ness in San Francisco. Emily’s story is revealed layer by layer, and Mendoza repeatedly revisits older scenes after these revelations—perhaps from a different angle, or cut differently—to let the audience reinterpret them in light of new information. There are some links to real-world medical practices that reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig). And the last twenty minutes suddenly make the switch back to “disturbing” and then a bit of real horror—though still nothing jumping out at you, for which I am grateful.
Unfortunately, I Am a Ghost is not without its flaws. The film’s plan to revisit scenes over and over again works well once you’ve acquired new information, but especially in the beginning there just simply isn’t enough new information to keep from getting bored with it. There is a purpose: establishing that it is a routine, as well as inserting small differences even from the start. But I think I would have chosen to pace it differently. (It was, at least, Mendoza’s choice, not a default.)
The character of Emily feels a bit too modern. I suppose they never made clear how long she’s been dead, but while I don’t know Ishida personally there were certainly times where I could feel a common connection with Reina (her character in The Fourth Messenger), who is most definitely supposed to be a product of the present day. The dialogue (both between Emily and the medium and at the end of the movie) was sometimes also a bit too “hit-you-over-the-head” for me, especially in contrast with the mostly-voiceless rest of the film. The voice during the horror bit was a bit too arbitrarily tropy for me—as in, it didn’t feel like it was carefully chosen, and to me didn’t fit. And some of the rituals Emily had to perform seemed fairly arbitrary (“walk through me”).
Then again, who am I to question the rules of spectral psychology and psychiatry?
For those who have seen it, my favorite scene is when self-aware Emily manages to interact with impression-Emily upstairs at the bedroom. It was startling in a good way, and both the cinematography (the camera angle!) and the acting were perfect there. We never quite get an explanation of how that happened (a closed time-loop of some kind??) but that scene remains the best for me.
So it was clever, and I enjoyed it while I was watching. It’s not perfect, but it is good, and has fairly minimal horror.1 And it’s only eighty minutes, so it’s not like it’s a huge time investment. In the end it’s a concept film: it’s not about the plot or characters so much as the premise…the whole premise, which you won’t learn until the end. So if you enjoy interesting premises and artsy films with a touch of darkness, go ahead and check it out next time it’s available…
…whenever that is.
Bonus: an interview with Mendoza about the piece from SFGate. (Caution: spoiler in the images!)
If you are more than a bit sensitive it could still give nightmares; for me it was only a bit below that level. Like I said, I don’t do horror. ↩︎