Chekhov’s Billy Zane: ‘Ghosts Of War’ Suffers From Not Enough Billy Zane

If Billy Zane dies in the first five minutes of a horror movie, you can be reasonably certain that he comes back. We call that Chekhov’s Billy Zane. So when Zane, playing a Nazi officer who boxes (obviously), gets his brains unceremoniously splattered all over a dusty French road in the first act of Butterfly Effect filmmaker Eric Bress’s new film, Ghosts of War, we know instantly that this won’t be the last of him. And thank God for that. Billy Zane is exactly what a film about a haunted Nazi mansion needs. And yet, Bress boldly makes us wait a full hour and 10 minutes for more Billy Zane, which is a long time indeed to delay gratification in a 94-minute movie. Should we call that tantric Billy Zane?

Ghosts of War, hitting VOD July 17th, stars a handful of young actors vaguely recognizable enough to play second fiddle to Billy Zane, spouting dialogue that feels cribbed from How To Write Soldier Jargon For Dummies. There’s Skylar Astin from Pitch Perfect, Brenton Thwaites, the kid from The Giver, Thad from Blue Mountain State (Alan Ritchson) and a couple other guys. They practically wear their characters’ shticks on their foreheads — The Jock, The Brain, The New Yorker, The Crazy Hillbilly, The Audience Stand-In.

These battle-hardened SOBs have come to relieve a squad of their compatriots, guarding a big ol’ mansion that we’re told had been “liberated from the Nazi high command.” The mansion is fully stocked with sausages and cheese and wine and fine furniture, yet the guys who were guarding it practically leave skid marks getting the hell out of there. Why did they seem to hate such a plum assignment? Gee, I wonder.

What follows is the usual assortment of mirror scares, bathtub visions, and cryptic words left mysteriously carved into wood, spiced up with just-read-the-Wikipedia-page WWII dialogue like “Before the Nazis come, should we, like, 23 skidoo?” and “Situation normal all fucked up.” “It’s a SNAFU alright.”

The mansion is obviously haunted, a point which is never in doubt, despite how obnoxiously long the soldiers take to acknowledge it. The big questions left outstanding are: what do the ghosts want? And, for whose sins do these ghosts demand atonement, our heroes’ or the Nazis’? Throughout Ghosts of War, just when you think you have a handle on what’s really going on, Skylar Astin will burst through the ceiling with his pilfered journal (he’s the only one of the crew who can read German) to breathlessly reveal, “Actually, it says here that poltergeists are allergic to water!” or whatever. Then we travel down that mini rabbit hole for a while.

Even as most of Ghosts of War‘s scenes fall flat for lack of coherent action or believable dialogue, it’s mildly entertaining to watch Bress (credited as writer and director) repeatedly write himself out of narrative jams by just blowing a hole in the sky. Poor Skyler Astin always has a lot to explain. Bress seems determined that if Ghosts of War doesn’t work, it won’t be for lack of invention.

Just when the novelty has all but worn off, Ghosts of War finally, belated lays its cards on the table with a third act twists so preposterous that you can’t help but enjoy it. It helps that Billy Zane is back, getting huge laughs with every shout of exposition and furrowed brow (which he does while listening to other characters shout exposition). Zane single-handedly almost makes this hare-brained sizzle reel of historic bummers fun. Is there a better B-movie cameo actor guy than Billy Zane?

In summation and without spoiling anything, the smartest thing Eric Bress did in Ghosts of War was to cast Billy Zane, and the dumbest thing he did was keeping Billy Zane off screen for 90% of the movie.

‘Ghosts of War’ opens OnDemand and digital July 17th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.