Review by Jay Bowman
Despite clocking in at an hour and a half, Ashes manages to feel incomplete. That isn’t to say the plot is rushed—if anything, the opposite is true—but there are just enough disconnected and distracting ideas thrown in to make you realize the film’s glacial pace. Pair this with an almost complete lack of tension and laughs, the only two things audiences would expect with certainty from a feature billed as a horror-comedy, and you’re in for a mild ride.
The plot, so much as it is: the eccentric Aunt Marion (Melinda deKay) dies and her ashes are sent to next of kin and mother of two, Ellyn (Elizabeth Keener). We learn that Marion was treated pretty poorly by everyone else in the family due to her perceived eccentricities. While Ellyn isn’t thrilled with keeping the cremated remains of a woman she regularly mocked, everyone else—her husband Duane (Jeremy Earl), daughters Camille and Melanie (Angelique Maurnae and Yumarie Morales) and mother Caroline (Elaine Partnow)–insist something proper must be done, though they don’t all agree on what that is. One spooky dream later and ghost aunt is having her revenge from beyond the grave.
Much of the comedy in Ashes stems from a total lack of respect for the deceased. The cruelty Aunt Marion lived with (which we hear discussed but see very little of in flashbacks) doesn’t seem to have toned down at all once she’s dead. Discussions about what to do with her ashes reveal just how little Ellyn cares, a mixture of being wigged out by the remains and just not wanting them. There are a few actual jokes sprinkled throughout, and lots of moments that are funny but may not have been intended as comedy (including what I can only assume are Bollywood-inspired special effects), so in that regard, it’s a mixed bag.
Not helping things at all are the frequent cuts to interview segments. We’re constantly shown one or more characters sitting together discussing the events that have already happened or that are to come, talking to an unseen camera as much as each other. What’s happening here is never really explained, and with what little the narrative gives us you have to twist some pretty tight logic knots to make any sense of it. But its cardinal sin is just how distracting (and tiring) it gets. Every other scene in the movie is filmed like, well, a movie, but there’s apparently a film crew occasionally documenting the family for reasons, too, who I guess aren’t present for the rest of the events we’re seeing.
The weakness of the horror (and the pacing, certainly) is that you know where things are going well before they get there, but we still have to follow the family’s healthy skepticism, at least for a short while. It’s not unreasonable to question if an angry ghost forced one daughter to miscarry and the other to get involved in an abusive relationship, for example, but it doesn’t change the fact that ultimately we know there’s going to be an angry aunt ghost, and watching the characters continually questions this for as long as they do adds nothing overall. Character building early on, while sparse, hinted at genuinely interesting conflicts that don’t get followed up on, and by the second half I found myself hoping we’d revisit them, if only for something to happen.
If you can sidestep its issues, Ashes verges on so bad it’s good, but even then it’s a commitment. Like a Tales from the Crypt episode devoid of irony or puns, it’s simply dull bones waiting to be fleshed out. What we’re left with is a family drama where the domestic problems are brushed aside for the sleepy activity of a mundane poltergeist lady. Don’t expect great shakes from this one, lest you like being disappointed.