PLOT: 70 years after the Stalin lead Holodomor - a mass starvation of roughly 7 million people - a small American documentary crew travels to Ukraine to chronicle cannibalism in the 20th century. What they discover is far harder to digest!
REVIEW: Five years after devoting his debut feature to KAJINEK, a fictionalized account of the real life Czech criminal, director Petr Jakl is back with GHOUL - a rather rote but well acted cannibal-possession hybrid that also uses another infamous Czech National to frame a found-footage documentary. This time it's Andrei Chikatilo, also known as The Red Ripper (or the Rostov Butcher), whose demonic spirit is used in GHOUL to fiendishly enrapture an unsuspecting bevy of young filmmakers. Unfortunately, the movie is beset with one sub-generic horror platitude after another, and actually works more effectively as a possession picture than a cannibal one, as there is very little on-screen flesh-gorging to speak of. So apart from some strong performances and an unsettling moment or two, GHOUL is yet another in a long lineage of no-budget BLAIR WITCH offshoots.
In perhaps the most disturbing portion of the entire film, we open with stark black and white footage depicting a series of gravely emaciated Ukrainians during the 1932 Holodomor. This was a real life event, a horrific period of Stalinism in which a famine left roughly 7 million Ukrainians starved to death. Unthinkable. We then jump 70 years ahead, to 2012, where we meet a trio of American documentarians - Ethan (Jeremy Isabella) Jenny (Jennifer Armour) and Ryan (Paul S. Tracey) - who are out to make a movie called Cannibals of the 20th Century. They target a small Ukrainian village to investigate, thinking it as rife a place as ever for the subject, to uncover how far cannibalism has come since the days of The Holodomor.
They link up with Katarina (Alina Golovlyova), a young local willing to help track down one of the last known survivors, a Vodka-pounding lout named Boris. But when Boris disappears after one night, shite gets awfully hectic. An ancient Ouija-type table-top is uncovered, one with a pentagram drawn inside of a circle, which the foursome foolishly fuck around with. As you might guess, soon a demonic spirit is unleashed that begins possessing the crew members, one by one, imploring them to eat each other in order to embolden the entity. Turns out the evil spirit is that of Andrei Chikatilo, aka The Rostrov Ripper, who apparently committed sexual assault, murder and mutilation of a minimum of 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990. He too was born into the famine of the 1930s, but really, the connection ends there.
Sadly, so does the originality. The longer the film unspools, the more familiar it feels, with overly-trampled tropes from a spate of horror genres taking hold at every turn. As a possession flick, a cannibal flick, a witch-board flick...each aspect ultimately devolves into well covered territory. Even the beyond tiresome shaky-cam aesthetic of the flick - with that drab, wintery, muted-in-grey tone, is starkly reminiscent of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT - down to spot-lit nighttime chase sequences and the frustrating tease of off-screen violence. And our only respite for the dizzying hand-held work is a pair of stationary surveillance cams, one grainy black and white and the other filtered in green. See what I mean. And really, for a cannibal joint, this movie sorely lacks the requisite flesh-mastication you're looking for. Until the final ten minutes or so, the only real money shot we get is of a dismembered cat. The violence, like the rest of the movie, runtime included, feels too spare to justify its longwinded build-up. Thankfully the performances in the movie were good enough to hold interest.
Really, among the main reasons why I was on board with GHOUL for so long were the convincing performances, in particular by the females. Straight up, Jennifer Armour and Alina Golovlyova made me believe. Part of this was the early establishment by Jakl of a true documentary style - a doc within a doc - that made it feel authentic, at least in the beginning. Another part could be their fresh faces, feature debuts for both (Armour a TV vet however), that lent credibility. Either way, they felt to me the most natural onscreen. Whether it was one of them becoming possessed a malefic ghoul or one dealing with the newfound grief of infertility, they sold it well. Because of this, they make an otherwise banal and slow moving horror retread feel a bit more alive. Beyond that, I actually dug how, for the second time now, Jakl has woven a real life villain into his fictional narrative. The shots of the real Chikatilo he was able to find and use were pretty actually pretty jarring. I just wish he spent less time on the chasing and summoning of The Red Ripper's demon, and more time and the actual cannibalism induced on its behalf.
Boiled down, there are things to admire and abhor about GHOUL. It has strong performances by its female leads, and it creepily weaves the history of a real life Czech criminal into a tale of possessive cannibalism. Unfortunately, every played out horror convention since 2004 is employed here, with an unforgivable dearth of gore to go with it. CANNIBAL HOLODOMOR this is not! Instead it feels much more like a cheaply adopted Ukrainian lovechild of Eduardo Sanchez's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and LOVELY MOLLY. But you know what, for a low-budget Ukrainian indie, I suppose it holds well within its found-footage peer group. The acting elevates if not masks the clichés, and carries the film for long stretches. Other than that, GHOUL is about as original as it its tile. You've seen this stuff before.