Ghost Town: An American Terror (2023)

Rating: C

Dir: Owen Conway
Star: Owen Conway, Robert Sprayberry, Becky Jo Harris, Eva Hamilton

Thirty minutes into this, I came to a conclusion about what was going on here. However, just over an hour later, the credits rolled, and… maybe I was wrong, or maybe I was right. The problem is not so much that the film opts not to come to any definitive answer, so much that there isn’t much added to the narrative in the final hour. It begins well enough, with a drifter, Solomon Miller (Conway), showing up in the former mining town of Swansea, after his horse drops dead nearby. Needing to raise some funds, he gets a job as barman and piss-pot emptier at the local saloon, the Golden Garden, under its proprietor, Bob Hagan (Sprayberry).

Literally minutes after starting work, he’s wiping brain matter off his forehead, as his first customer gets gunned down in front of Solomon. The following day, a situation with other patrons escalates into three more corpses. Solomon is also hearing disturbing noises around town, and Hagan is riding his new employee ferociously hard, docking Solomon’s pay for everything from breakages to perceived back-talk. Even the growing relationship between Solomon and Stella (Harris), one of the saloon girls, is little source of comfort, as his mind appears to unravel, the longer he spends in Swansea. It becomes increasingly clear Solomon is an unreliable narrator, with what he experiences not necessarily an objective reflection of reality. So what is going on?

Yeah, I hope you are not expecting the film to tell you. Instead, Conway the director just keeps ramping up the weirdness, with Solomon encountering increasingly stranger characters, including a priest who feels like he strayed in from an episode of Twin Peaks, as well as a demon-like entity, that pops up out of nowhere, before vanishing without explanation. The script then delivers an ending that manages to tie up the loose ends, without actually explaining what you just watched. Was it all some Jacob’s Ladder-like near-death experience for Solomon? Was everyone in the town, in fact, already dead, with Swansea a waiting-room for the recently deceased? Fucked if we know. One thing’s for sure: there aren’t many people left with a pulse, one way or another. If they had one to start with. 

It’s a shame, for the early going is effective, with a strong sense of unease being efficiently generated. It’s clear resources were limited, with few locations and a small cast. Yet this doesn’t hamper things: indeed, it may help to enhance the sense of isolation. Not just physical, but psychological and – it feels an important factor – spiritually. Given this, I was almost expecting a literal “come to Jesus” moment at the end. I think I might have respected that a little more than the wishy-washy ambiguity actually delivered. There are times when religion needs to come from a fire and brimstone preacher, rather than a tea and tolerance C of E priest. When you’re making a horror Western is likely one of those occasions which would benefit from full-scale commitment.