Alyssa (Marina Resa) arrives by taxi in the sun-kissed desert one afternoon, at a remote house owned by the affable Mrs Wu (Shirley To). Alyssa has been employed by an agency at short notice, as the new housekeeper.
Happy for the peace and quiet that her new surroundings promise, Alyssa has already dumped her mobile phone on the journey there in a bid to sever contact from her depressed ex-boyfriend Jacob (Jerod Edington).
Initially Alyssa thinks she's on to a good thing. The local scenery is sumptuous and Wu's house is gorgeous - in particular, the room set aside for Alyssa is very grand indeed. But Alyssa is a little taken aback by Wu's house rules (no boys, no drugs, no booze, no guests in the house, no black music, don't use the telephone unless you ask first) and the deeply religious disposition of her boss, and her live-in Aunt Chen (Akiko Shima).
On her second night there, Alyssa discovers Wu and Chen on the front porch, burning special papers and reciting incantations. Wu explains to her that her arrival has coincided with the beginning of the Chinese "Ghost Month" - a superstition that lasts for 30 days each calendar year, where the Chinese believe dead souls are free to enter the mortal world for one month. This is all good and well, Wu says, apart from the few vengeful souls that take this as an opportunity to spread their evil. Their moonlight prayers are conducted in a bid to keep the evil spirits at bay.
The following morning, Alyssa is cleaning the house when she begins to mop away a gathering of ashes on the porch. Wu goes crazy, insisting these were placed there to keep evil spirits from entering her home. Sure enough, as Alyssa is ushered back into the house, she is convinced she sees a malevolent black soul lurking above her (think: the Dementors from the HARRY POTTER films).
Still, by the early evening both women are happy again and Wu gives Alyssa the rest of the day off. She takes it as an opportunity to go and read some Virginia Wolfe at the bottom of the garden. Here she meets neighbour Blake (Rick Irvin) who bonds with her over a love of feminist authors. He tells her she's welcome to pop in on him at any time, and makes sure he keeps an eye on her at Wu's in the meantime.
Also interested in Alyssa's welfare are her friend Nicole (Kierstin Cunnington), who she rings from Wu's home phone on the sly one day, and Jacob - who is actively seeking Alyssa to win her back (Lord knows why - one of the messages he leaves on her mobile phone says "You're just a fucking whore like my mother"!).
One afternoon, Alyssa finds a Chinese box on top of the wardrobe in her room and discovers a spangley dress inside. Trying it on, she's amused to find it's a perfect fit. Wu is less impressed when she catches Alyssa in the frock, and makes her return it to the box. When she does, Alyssa uncovers a photograph of a Chinese waif by the name of Mei Ling (Anna Lee).
When she shows the picture to Wu, Wu says Mei Ling was the former housekeeper. She tells Alyssa that Mei Ling left in a hurry, and later even produces a letter written by Mei Ling upon her departure. But Alyssa's nights are being troubled by apparition-like images, and a figure hovering in her room that looks suspiciously like Mei Ling, telling her "Simon knows all".
Alyssa rings Nicole for advice, unsure whether her sightings are dreams or reality - Wu has, after all, spooked her sufficiently with all this talk of "ghost month". But Nicole is little use at the other end of a telephone - what good can she do, aside from unwittingly giving away Alyssa's destination to the mental Jacob.
Meanwhile, things just keep getting weirder for our witless housekeeper ...
Writer-director Danny Draven (HELL ASYLUM) shoots on 35mm here to produce a good-looking, slick and visually accomplished film. Making good use of the sun-drenched outdoor scenery, GHOST MONTH is a very photogenic film. The cast are attractive and competent, while the editing is slick and assured.
Eschewing overly-flashy techniques in favour of a much preferable straight storytelling style, Draven delivers an unfussy and brisk horror film that, while clearly influenced by the efforts of our Asian friends, has enough inner logic and sense of drama to keep it firmly in sight of it's American origins.
Characters are quirky and the mystery element works well, building to a couple of satisfying (if hardly revelatory) surprises. As a writing and directing exercise, this works in Draven's favour.
A little more low-key than a lot of contemporary US horror films, this may disappoint those looking for their quick fix of gore. But it does compensate with an effective melancholic score from Jojo Draven, and some above-average CGI ghouls.
Draven's skills have been honed since his previous films, and there are plenty of 'jump' moments in the film. The tone is more consistent than, say, that of HELL ASYLUM, too.
Flaws would be that (a) many of the set-piece scenes are competent but subdued - they lack a certain "something" in terms of energy, rendering them almost forgettable despite their clear professionalism, and (b) although the film branches into more satisfying, conspiracy-based territory during the latter half, the first hour plays on too many Asian horror conventions (sudden jolting music cues; black-haired ghosts; dream sequences).
Also, it could be mentioned - arguably unfairly - that the film is going to draw comparisons to the recent release of the similarly themed THEY WAIT. But GHOST MONTH is the better, more original, and more effective of the two.
This screener disc does a good job of showcasing the film. GHOST MONTH is presented uncut in a clear and clean 1.66:1 transfer, enhanced for 16x9 TV sets. Colours are bold and detail is sharp in this pleasingly grain-free proposition. Thankfully, for a film with many dark scenes, blacks hold up extremely well throughout.
The screener disc presented the audio in 2.0. It was a consistent and clear playback, although dialogue was notably quiet in relation to the jarringly loud score. The official release also includes a 5.1 option, which was not available to review.
The disc came with a nice animated main menu, and an attractive animated scene-selection menu allowing access to the 100-minute main feature via 24 chapters.
Of the extras that have been promised on any official release, the only ones made available to review were a trailer and Behind The Scenes featurette.
The trailer was an agreeably slick 2-minute affair presented in non-enhanced 1.66:1. It does a good job of highlighting the film's eerie mood and stunning cinematography.
The featurette is a very professional-looking 17-minute proffering, presented in 16x9 enhanced 1.66:1. In it, we get lots of colourful cast and crew interviews plus a wealth of brisk on-set scenes. The documentary is split into segments ('The Story', The Cast', etc). Much is made of how the film attracted the cast because it wasn't a blood'n'guts exercise, and how Draven wanted to "challenge the conventions of the genre". Well, I don't know about that exactly, but they all seem sincere enough and the end result is worthy of praise.
Other extras promised for an official release, but not available to review on the screener provided, include deleted scenes, a blooper reel, DVD ROM content (including PDF script and music snippets), plus commentaries by the director and cast.
Though not Earth-shattering, or even particularly memorable as a whole, GHOST MONTH is a commendable effort that takes some interesting ideas and handles them with intelligence. It deserves to be seen, and consolidates Draven's status as a low-budget director of considerable promise.
For more information, visit the official website at www.ghostmonthmovie.com.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by North American Motion Pictures|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|