Film Review: Invoking Macbeth

I have often mentioned my love for Macbeth. My favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, I’ve often joked that if it was written today, it wouldn’t be classified as a tragedy but rather horror. How appropriate, then, is the basic idea behind Ghost Light, about a group of theatre actors off to the Berkshires to put on a production of “the Scottish play”, only to invoke the Macbeth curse and get their own horrific encounters.

I was hooked the moment I heard the plot. After all, it was a combination of my love for theatre, meta, and Shakespeare. Add in the news that it starred both Cary Elwes and Roger Bart, and I gave up an anniversary screening of Halloween with Q&A with John Carpenter after to catch this at the LA Film Festival.

The film starts off slow: we’re on a bus where director Henry Asquith (Bart) is warning actor Thomas Ingram (Tom Riley) to behave. Thomas apparently had been blackballed in New York for sleeping with the director’s wife, and this production of Macbeth is the only work he’s seeing as a result. He’s understudying the lead, who will be played by soap star Alex Pankhurst (Elwes) who is cast only because he’s funding the entire production, not because he can act. Thomas apparently hasn’t learned his lesson, as he’s sleeping with Pankhurt’s wife Liz Beth Stevens (Shannyn Sossamon), who — of course — is playing Lady Macbeth in the production.

When they arrive at the bed and breakfast that has the summer stock-style theatre, there’s some talk from actress Madeline Styne (Carol Kane) and actor Elliot Wadsworth (Steve Tom) about the various superstitions actors have, including the title drop ghost light and the fear of saying the name Macbeth inside a theatre. (And the obligatory ‘ways to combat the curse back’ when Madeline, in a fit of pique after getting some notes from Henry, says the name three times.)

Thomas, who is miffed that he is only the understudy when Alex can’t act his way out of a paper bag, scoffs at the superstition. Later, he meets up with Liz Beth in the theatre and the two gleefully say “Macbeth” as they discuss ways to get around Alex.

From there, the production starts taking on aspects of the play, with supernatural aspects intervening. Alex gets hurt after Thomas and Liz Beth somewhat jokingly about taking care of him, and Liz Beth starts obsessing about cleaning the blood off her hands while Thomas goes down the rabbit hole of contemplating completing the deed. We have witches and ghosts and mind games aplenty.

First, the good. And there was plenty of good. As I tweeted out, a thing I never knew I needed until now is Cary Elwes doing Shakespeare badly. It’s a toss-up between his “Is this a dagger I see before me?” (with a REAL PROP DAGGER for him to interact with!) and his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (which you can see in the trailer) as to which monologue he butchers worse, and he has SO. MUCH. FUN. acting badly.

Sossamon and Riley are also great, both individually and as a couple. Riley plays the asshole to a T, while Sossamon inhabits the actress being ‘overtaken’ by Lady Macbeth beautifully. In fact, she is a close second as to the best actor in the movie, and is a joy to watch as she slowly goes insane. Meanwhile, Bart plays the exasperated director perfectly. (I’m sure it has nothing to do with his theatre history.) He is just subtle enough to let the others have their due. Kane, of course, steals every scene she’s in, while the rest of the cast do a fine job with their appropriate parts.

And now the bad. There’s a scene late in the movie where Thomas is dreaming (or is he?) and keeps waking up, and is tempted by the newest member of the troupe, a traveler who showed up looking for a yoga studio and ends up being cast as one of the witches (Danielle Campbell). She quickly changes to Liz Beth, and then to another actress, and then to fellow actor Nigel Bloom (Alex Portenko) in a ‘gay panic is funny’ moment. It’s played for laughs that Thomas would be tempted by Nigel, made even worse that Nigel’s plotline is that he and fellow actor Troy Mattson (Sheldon Best) were in a relationship and Nigel is trying to get over it. It seemed to make gayness a joke, which — especially for the theatre — I felt was uncalled for.

Additionally, I’ve been involved in theatre (albeit on a community theatre level) for almost 20 years. And everyone has a story about something going wrong during a production of Macbeth due to someone saying the name in the theatre. And the entire second season of Slings & Arrows dealt with the curse. Not to mention that pretty much every theatre has a story of a ghost (hence the ghost light of the title) and all sorts of other superstitions (they even mention the ‘no whistling in a theatre’ one). So, I was a bit thrown that the script decided to use a story that was either invented for this movie or one I hadn’t heard of, about an actor who is cursed to want to take over the role and is brought forth if the name Macbeth is uttered. To me, it felt like a lost opportunity to not explore the overall aspects of theatre supernatural. If you want a ‘theatre troupe does Macbeth while the plot seems to echo in real life’, Slings & Arrows did a far better job of showing how it could feasibly cross over into real life.

However, those two issues aside, the movie is a fun mix of comedy and horror. It’s currently touring other film festivals, but you can sign up for more information about when it will be available in your area on the movie’s official website.

You can see more of Angie’s work and her social media connections over at her website.

Note: this article was also published on Contents May Vary. Also, in the sense of full disclosure, I was a screener for the LA Film Festival, but this was not one of the films I screened.

Ghost Light, written by John Stimpson and Geoffrey Taylor (based on the play by William Shakespeare), directed by John Stimpson. Produced by H9 Films. Copyright 2018. (Seen September 22, 2018, at the LA Film Festival.)

Post Author: Angie Fiedler Sutton

I am a writer, photographer, and all-round fangirl geek. I have done everything from data entry to managing, and I love a wide range of geek culture. In fact, when I can, I freelance, covering geek culture, entertainment, and the performing arts. I have been published in Den of Geek, Stage Directions, LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and others. I also produce my own podcast, G33K Out with Angie Fiedler Sutton, where I interview geeky people about geeky things. You can see my work and social media connections over at my website angiefsutton.com.

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