The ghost story is a time honored horror tradition, a metaphor that combines the fear of death and the other side, with the manifestation of repressed memory. I Am A Ghost is director/writer H.P. Mendoza’s horror debut, but like all the great horror films before it, it can’t be contained in one single genre. The classic ghost story is inverted and colored by dabs from an experimental brush, borrowing from movies like Poltergeist and books like The Haunting of Hill House to create a unique expression of the terrifying rifted between memory and time.
H.P. Mendoza, a Filipino American director living in San Francisco, has written four other movies, directed a documentary on magic, as well as scored several movies prior to I Am A Ghost. Mendoza’s musical talent and flair for vibrant dialogue has lead him to gain a reputation as a creator of quirky musical comedies and romances. But while his latest film is a departure from his past, he is not a stranger to the horror genre.
“When I was a kid I would sneak into theaters here in San Francisco and watch what ever horror movie I could.” said Mendoza.
Mendoza’s long-time love of the genre is apparent in his obvious knowledge of horror tropes and his careful avoidance of, or homage to them, in his film. Everything that rings true about being a human in horror films Mendoza has managed to keep and re-invent, avoiding all gimmick. He recalled where the inspiration for his film came from.
“You fall in love with any genre and you start to see patterns, you start to see remakes and re-hashings. When The Sixth Sense came out I remember thinking ‘what a great film’ and I wanted to share it with my friends. So I brought my friends to the screening of The Sixth Sense and they loved it but I suddenly didn’t because now that I knew what the twist was, the rest of the movie just wasn’t that exciting. I thought to myself, well that’s kind of cheap, if the entire experience of enjoyment hinges on a twist. I remember thinking that the supernatural aspect was nothing more than a gimmick. But what if I wanted to make a movie that was all about being a ghost? What if there was no twist and you actually knew she was a ghost from the very beginning?”
And thus, I Am A Ghost was born. While the inspiration may have come from The Sixth Sense, Mendoza’s film is considerably more high minded. I Am Ghost is about a woman named Emily who is haunting a Victorian house in San Francisco where she died (we later find out that she was killed by a demon). She spends a lot of the first act unaware that she is a ghost, trapped in a loop of her own memories. The viewer is dragged through the monotony of her waking up, cooking breakfast, cleaning, sitting in the living room reading. These fragmented images of mundane life are edited so elegantly that the viewer feels the sense of purgatory in a visceral way.
“Hauntings are nothing more than imprints on time, like recordings of what’s happened. So they’re not necessarily people who are cognizant, they’re just little recordings. So I thought it would be cool to do something with a bunch of little recordings. And then after I started scoping out the movie more in my head a bit more I realized I didn’t want it to be a movie about recordings, the movie should be recordings. The movie should be the hauntings.”
And so the film and the editing of the film becomes a highly disturbing analogy for memory and how we are trapped by it. The memories are dislodged from a linear timeline, creating a dizzying narrative that subtly conveys what it must be like to be a lost spirit. The sense of claustrophobia is facilitated by a minimal soundtrack, which demonstrates Mendoza’s ear for music is as highly tuned as his ear for silence.
The editing of the film is very artfully done and a crucial element to the way the story unfolds. Mendoza talked about his film idols, noting influences, saying, “one of my favorite filmmakers Stan Brakhage, specifically the stuff that had to do with his family, the stuff that had to do with his baby and his wife, because he only had films that he shot himself, that were silent. Films of his wife giving birth, his dog playing in the backyard. Really interesting things. People know him as the guy who kind of shaped what film editing is, which is true, but he also made haunting films. Feature films that would just be moments of his life imprinted in time. And he really made use of the cut to black.”
In conversation, I asked, “but why are these moments, these imprints so utterly creepy?” Adding, “Something about the past clawing its way to the present is profoundly disturbing and gives ghost movies their true power.”
“I think the differences in time are inherently creepy,” Mendoza said. “I think it’s the weight of the moment that makes it creepy and it’s everything that’s associated with that that makes it creepy. Have you ever watched a movie that’s really old and you think ‘oh this is great, what a great comedic actor, he’s so talented; he’s such a performer. Wow he’s probably dead.’ You think about how much time has passed since he died and the moment of you watching it, and how long it’s been since the movie was made. You start thinking in associations.”
The ghost in film becomes a fifth horseman of the ever-present apocalypse. A specter that is the harbinger of time, and it’s ever creeping oblivion. Death is scary, but it’s an event that takes place on a timeline that can be comprehended. It’s the final axis following birth and gives life perspective and dimension, things that the human mind can grab onto and understand. But time continues and the things that happen after death, after that neat timeline, are incomprehensible and unnatural. They are the unknown and the unknown is a complete, enveloping black terror.
This unknown is masterfully depicted in I Am A Ghost by using evocative dialogue and the cut to black. At one point Emily tries to leave the house and encounters a crushing darkness that she describes as not black, but empty.
“I want people thinking, at least by that point in the film, about what the nothing is. There’s enough dialogue and conversation about nothing, for example the first time she describes the demon that she was killed by, she describes him as a man with grey skin and darkness in his eyes, not that they were black, but they were empty. So we get this idea, and then she finds out what nothing is. She stares into nothing, and we get a little more explicit dialogue when she comes back. She’s talking about how she finally witnessed what nothing is, and it’s the most terrifying thing she’s ever seen in her life. And so what you have is the dialogue keeps creeping more and more towards what nothing is, and basically what you’re doing is if you treat nothing as blackness, blackness is nothing and darkness, what you have is the dialogue about nothing increasing as the screenplay goes on, this script, this story, this movie, the whole time is in essence fading to black.”
Another element of the film that makes it unique is the character of the demon that is pursuing Emily. Reminiscent of the demon in Poltergeist, this one is a grotesque creature of metaphor. Mendoza says,
“He’s not a demon based in Judeo-Christian values. I think that whenever we think of demons, they’re only referred to in the places that have Judeo-Christian values. For example I’m Filipino which means I automatically grew up catholic, and whenever somebody had an illness people would say things like ‘oh yeah she has a demon in her’ or ‘we need to exorcise her’. This is no joke here, I remember I had the flu when I was in the Philippines, and me being a totally western guy, I was eight years old and American, I said I need medicine, I should go to the doctor. And I’ll never forget the doctor tried to pray the flu away. And when he sat me down, he was sort of chanting that I had a demon in me. I was pretty sure I just needed Nyquil.”
The character of Emily suffered from a psychological disorder that resulted in a second, wildly violent personality within her that ultimately becomes the demon. This makes the character of the demon a fascinating intersection of medical science and metaphysics. His existence brings up questions about the nature of the soul and consciousness, and whether two souls can inhabit one body. He is a terrifying manifestation of the grey area between science and the unknown.
I Am A Ghost is a wonderful addition of the canon of ghost movies, and one that will spark a complex dialogue for years to come. A movie that has endless replay value and will continue to scare the wits out of people for a long time.
By David Calbert