A lone drifter stumbles through the desert of the old west. Ragged and sun-beaten, Solomon (Owen Conway) looks ready to keel over and die at any moment. Upon discovering a town, he cackles with joy, believing his salvation has finally come.
But life on the frontier is hard. Explosive violence can break out at any moment. The weary townsfolk don’t seem to be interested in making life easy for Solomon. His employer, the barkeep Hagan (Robert Sprayberry), barks orders and listens little. Strange noises threaten Solomon whenever he’s alone. An unseen malevolent force seems to stalk him wherever he goes. Solomon’s salvation quickly turns to damnation as he struggles to keep his sanity in Ghost Town.
The older I get, the more I find myself attracted to the Western genre. Are they historically accurate? Rarely. Are they formulaic? Usually. And are they full of tropes and character archetypes that make a modern viewer roll their eyes? Almost always. But still, I just can’t help myself. Give me some dusty towns, six-shooters, and surly drunkards in cowboy hats and we can call that a party. Throw some horror into the mix and we can call that a genuine hootenanny.
Despite my newfound attraction to them, the horror-western is not always an easy one to pull off. While recontextualizing a well-worn horror trope within the old west can often yield some fantastic results, all too often the final product can come across as the worst of both worlds. Too redundant to be a satisfying horror movie, and too unfocused to be a satisfying western.
I hate to say it, but Ghost Town falls right into that category. As much as I was rooting for it, it just didn’t come through in the end. The biggest issue at hand is that there’s just not enough meat on these bones for a full movie. The story could maybe work as a short, but as a feature the plot is so thin you can see right through it. Based on the trailer alone you can get a pretty good idea of where this story is headed. You may not be exactly right in your prediction, but you’ll probably be in the general vicinity.
The frustrating thing is that individually, no single element of the movie is particularly bad. In addition to acting in the lead role, the film is written and directed by Owen Conway, and he does a good job of bringing the story to the screen. The setting is suitably bleak, the costumes are fantastic, and the characters are interesting. The main cast all put in strong performances, and aside from a few forays into the melodramatic, the actors do a good job of bringing their characters to life and making them feel unique.
Where the movie falters is in the script itself. The story is just too predictable, and not particularly engaging. The interesting characters tend to be pushed to the side in order to shoehorn some horror into the mix.
If anything, the horror elements are the movie’s biggest weakness. When Solomon isn’t besieged by supernatural threats, his misadventures with the locals have a peculiar, off-kilter charm. Between the drunk Ezekiel (Nathaniel Burns) continually sleeping in the outhouse, and the cantankerous Hagan admonishing Solomon for speaking rudely around “the whores”, there’s an awkward, almost David-Lynch-like sense of humor that is never truly taken advantage of.
The sequences that are genuinely unnerving are introduced for only a moment and then quickly abandoned. A brief flashback presents a moment in Solomon’s life when he made ends meet as a photographer of the recently deceased. The imagery of the dead with eyes painted on their shut lids is suitably macabre, but for all the power that the moment could have, the movie never does anything with it.
In the end, Ghost Town would be better suited if it didn’t try to be horror at all. There’s a wide range of unsettling and darkly humorous moments presented throughout the course of the film, but its insistence on focusing on the scary noises and distorted faces completely undermines what would otherwise be an interesting study of life in the old west.
If you’re like me, and you just can’t get enough western horror, go ahead and give Ghost Town a watch. It’s decently shot and acted, and it has a couple of interesting moments. Just don’t expect it to blow your boots off.
Ghost Town is currently available on DVD and VOD.