The titular ghost light refers to one of many superstitions that orbit the stage and plague neurotic actors, causing fear for anything short of a performance of Olivier’s legacy. Just as you are forbidden from whistling or wishing good luck to any of your fellow castmates, if you were to let the solitary light left on the stage between performances to burn out, your company is doomed to die on stage, sometimes both figuratively and literally. It’s also one of several superstitions that John Stimpson’s script attempts to mine for comedy and horror to flaccid and disappointing results, which seems irrevocably confused whether these superstitions are supposed to be absurd or terrifying.
Ghost Light follows a company of beleaguered actors who are so exhaustedly familiar with one another that they are firmly at each other’s throats between takes as they attempt to perform the among most accursed of plays – Shakespeare’s Macbeth – despite not respecting tradition. Frankly the premise bursts with potential, but the execution lacks conviction as it juggles ideas only to drop nearly all of them onto the stage floor.
Crossed between a horror film of Macbeth’s curse manifesting itself, a Christopher Guest-like cringe comedy of these actors having to deal with one another, and a murder-intrigue of one lowly understudy slaying his way to the spotlight, it goes without saying Stimpson and cowriter Geoffrey Taylor never can commit to any of these disparate but solid ideas.
Eternally confused about its identity, Ghost Light runs all these plots concurrently to create a mess that squanders the initial inspired idea of a company facing Macbeth’s curse in full force.
Even with the characters being drawn so thin and underdeveloped beyond a single dimension, the cast’s enjoyable talents amplifies the disappointment in the film’s inevitable failure to launch. It was entertaining to see Cary Elwes play to his strengths as a conceited Macbeth who gleefully draws the ire of his castmates, and Carol Kane as the hysterical overactor who follows the curse’s traditions like they were scripture.
Even though the script’s problems mean they can only rub a single character trait against one another in the vain hopes of producing a spark, the chemistry on display carries the film as it searches desperately for what it wants to be. In between the cast’s enjoyable exchanges, three plots jostle for supremacy before they each give up and leave the cast cold with little to hold onto.
It feels like Ghost Light was one of the failed horror-comedy attempts that tries to strike a balance between the two genres, but ends up effectively neither. The jokes that litter the script are more awkward than funny, as they mainly involve castmates taking cheap, surface-level shots at one another ad nauseam.
It doesn’t help that they are delivered against a backdrop of ugly CGI ghosts who howl and whisper Shakespeare’s words between the pithy back-and-forth of the cast. (I would say the former makes the latter ineffective and vice versa, but neither were particularly funny or scary to begin with.) Perhaps with the conviction that comes with a singular story thread to hold the film afloat, Ghost Light could have thrown the weight of its cast behind something solid, but alas it chooses the middle ground, which satisfies nobody.
I’m reminded of a noncanonical episode of The Simpsons, which did this very plot, in which Homer Simpson kills his way to the lead role of Macbeth, spurred on by Marge, in a clear parallel to the original play. I only bring it up in comparison because that episode was first and foremost a comedy, and thus could be genuinely funny (despite the substantial comedic handicap of being a contemporary episode released only a couple of years ago). Ghost Light lacks this focus, and because of it squanders the inherent potential of its cast and premise by trying to be too much when but one of its plots could have sufficed.
Even with derivative dialogue, cheap sets and cheaper effects, you walk away from Ghost Light wishing it was more than it was. This is ironic because it’s very clearly trying to be one thing, but if it picked one of those courses and let its cast stretch themselves more fully around it, this could have been a fun oddity skewering or bolstering the superstitions that play out on stage. Because it wanted to be both, it is neither.