We live in an era of peak tv. With so much choice available it can be quite exhausting deciding what to watch. There are so many shows I need to catch up on and only so many hours in the day. Sometimes you want a show that is going to make you laugh. Sometimes you want a show that is going to move you or challenge you. And sometimes you just want something glossy and silly and fun to lose yourself in for a few hours. Step forward Ghost Wars, a SyFy show newly arrived on Netflix UK re-badged as a Netflix Original (and yes I did click on it because of its very silly name – see catchy titles do work!)
Roman Mercer (Avan Jogia) is done with Port Moore, the small Alaskan town he grew up in. The son of a disgraced medium who was run out of town years before Roman “like the kid in the movie” can see dead people. Whether he wants to or not. Feared and despised by all, he decides it’s time to leave Port Moore. But as he’s on the bus out of town an earthquake hits. His attempts to save the life of his fellow passengers is stymied when an evil spirit intervenes. The town suddenly finds itself cut off from all civilisation with no one able to leave. Even worse Port Moore is suddenly flooded with very angry ghosts who want nothing more than for the inhabitants of the town to join them in the afterlife. To everyone’s delight Roman is a handy ghost repellent but can he keep everyone safe?
Ghost Wars is a wonderfully entertaining and addictive show. It is pure popcorn television. It borrows liberally from a variety of other sources such as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Poltergeist but reminded me the strongest of two Stephen King works – The Mist (with its tale of a secret research lab unwittingly unleashing chaos on a small town) and Under the Dome (in which a town gets completely cut off from the outside world and the worst monsters of all turn out to be panicked humans). On the one hand Ghost Wars is gloriously silly. It is the sort of show where a priest finds a ginormous glowing pod in his basement and instead of going “huh what’s this weird shiny glowing pod doing here? I should probably tell someone” instead decides to writhe against it in a fit of ecstasy (as you do). Characters start acting wildly differently and instead of screaming “pod person” no one bats an eyelid. Nobody listens to each other and parents are woefully neglectful when it comes to their children. But for all its daftness, B Movie style plotting and occasionally hackneyed dialogue Ghost Wars does not stint on the promise of its title. It is cheerfully gruesome at times and is not afraid to go very dark indeed. Huge swathes of the cast are cut down in their prime – the bodycount is utterly brutal. The ghosts’ ability to warp what a person sees leads to some of the most chilling scenes of the series, a horrifying rendition of Walking on Sunshine, an unusual pregnancy and a doctor visiting with an elderly female patient (hands down the best and most downright unsettling sequence in the entire series).
The acting is uniformly good (which is not always a given with some of SyFy‘s output.) Avan Jogia is appealingly put upon as the unfairly maligned Roman who finds himself as a highly reluctant hero. Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy) is charm itself as Billy McGrath and easily the best thing in the series. Vincent D’Onofrio is an actor with an enormous range (see his sensitive, nuanced and utterly terrifying turn as the Kingpin in Daredevil) and possibly the only actor that could have played the role of Reverend Dan. There is a lot working against him in Ghost Wars – the worst wig I think I’ve ever seen, scenes that require him to writhe orgiastically against a magic pod and another scene where he has to do battle with really rubbishy looking giant tendrils/tentacles. At yet he emerges from all of that with his dignity intact finding the inherent goodness and kindness in Dan. Kandyse McClure (who does not appear to have aged a single day since Battlestar Galactica) is both sweet and driven as Doctor Barker (who is also slightly improbably McGrath’s girlfriend). Kristin Lehman (unrecognisable from her recent stint as slinky and perpetually bra-less Miriam Bancroft in Altered Carbon) is impressive as the town’s doctor (Marilyn) and has great chemistry with Luvia Peterson who plays the town’s mayor (Val). Both really sell the notion that these two women are married and love each other dearly even though the honeymoon stage is long over. Meat Loaf (yes him!) manages to turn what initially seems like a horrendous cliché of a stupid angry redneck into a sensitive portrayal of a grieving father. Jesse Moss (Deputy Norm Waters) imbues his dopey small town deputy with longing and loneliness. Hell even the small parts are well cast especially Donavon Stinson as Shane (he’s equally great in a Canadian horror movie called Dead Shack).
I also appreciated the diversity on display. Whilst the cast is predominantly Canadian Jogia’s father is of British Indian origin and it is still so tragically rare to see an actor with Jogia’s skin tone as the lead in a drama series. Val is both the town’s mayor and a lesbian and at no point is her gender or her sexuality raised as an issue. There’s plenty of decent female roles in the show and plenty of female involvement behind the scenes too. Leslie Hope (probably still best known as Teri Bauer in 24) directs two of the episodes as does series guest star Kristin Lehman. Over half of the series writing staff is female with star Sonja Bennett (Karla) writing two episodes. That’s more impressive than most network shows – these things matter.
Unfortunately Ghost Wars does rather fall at the last hurdle. The final episode goes small and low key when it should have gone operatically big. The final battle between the town and the ghosts is remarkably anti-climatic compared to some of the fights earlier in the season. A couple of 11th hour (heavily signposted) reveals are entertaining but the penultimate scene really is a tad nihilistic and undercuts much of what went before leaving the show in a place where it’s hard to see how it could continue. But up until that point it is one hell of a ride. If you are looking for pure spooky entertainment Ghost Wars has you covered.