As Avengers: Infinity War continues to dominate theaters and wide-release flicks scramble for the scraps, another film made its way direct to video today—a movie unlike any I’ve seen.
In some ways, Wraith is a traditional haunted-house ghost story, filled with creepy attics and hidden stairways and something that goes bump in the night. But the ghost we meet is quite different from your typical tormented spirit of someone long dead. And the film, written and directed by Hollywood vet Michael Sajbel, has a decidedly pro-life twist to it.
I had a chance to talk with Sajbel, who has helmed a number of secular and faith-based movies. We chatted about horror films, Christian movies and whether it’s getting more difficult to tell certain sorts of stories in our divisive, fragmented age.
Paul Asay: Every haunted house needs a great house to be haunted, and the one you found was beautiful. How did you come across it?
Michael Sajbel: If you’re an architecture geek, this may draw your ire a little bit. The house that we call the picture house, the one you see from the outside, that’s a beautiful old home [in Appleton, Wisconsin] built in the late 1800s. It was wonderful, but as a director and writer, you imagine the long hallway, you imagine the creepy attic, you imagine this room and that, and that house did not offer any of that once you went inside.
Another house across the river, maybe within a mile or so, had a perfect interior. But it didn’t have an attic. So we used another house for that. [The owners] had renovated the house completely with the exception of the attic. When somebody walks through a doorway in one house, they enter a room in another house.
Asay: You obviously have an affinity for horror and haunted-house movies, which might be a bit unusual in the circles Christian moviemakers tend to travel. Have you always been a fan of the genre?
Sajbel: When I was growing up in a little town called Wausau, Wisconsin, every Friday the 13th they’d have like three or four [horror movies playing, back-to-back, at the local theater]. They’d be the Hammer films from England in the late 1960s … and then the early AIP [American International Pictures] and Roger Corman horror films, and Die Monster Die. So I went to all those, and I was fascinated by them. Nowadays, I look at them and I see bad miniatures and horrible process photography and all that. But back then I just loved ’em.
Then I kind of moved away from horror films. But then there was a rainy day in Los Angeles where my business partners and I, we couldn’t shoot because it was raining. We went to a movie theater and saw [a reissue of the 1973 film] The Exorcist. … And the evil was so palpable and so frightening, that I was really scared. And other films like Carrie by Brian de Palma, and a few others, got me really excited about [the genre again].
There’s a debate as to whether Christians should view horror or whether they should participate at all … there are a number of people who are believers who are now in the business, and ultimately the Bible does talk about the unseen war between good and evil and powers and principalities and things like that. So [horror movies can reflect] a bit of reality if you want to call it that.
If it’s just to gross you out—exploding heads and stuff like that—then it’s not something that I would enjoy. And I hate those films … where they saw off parts of your body. I don’t need to see those. I don’t poison my mind in advance with things that I know are not good for me.
Asay: Wraith isn’t a gross movie, but it really goes in some interesting directions. Not to give too much away, but the “ghost” we meet comes with a pretty strong pro-life message. Why did you take the story in that direction?
Sajbel: I was listening to this particular story from a woman—definitely not a believer, and even to call her New Age would not even be just. Still a very nice person and all, but she described this ghost and how it would get upset if there was an animal trapped in the attic or something was caught in the drainpipe or a cat that needed to be fed or taken to the vet. This ghost would become very alarmed and alert [the home’s owners], turning on and off the TV and stuff like that. And I woke up one night and thought, “The ghost is protecting the life in the house.” And then I extrapolated further and thought, “Well if the ghost is protecting the life in the house, why wouldn’t it protect its own life?”
I believe you shouldn’t just remake things that have been done before, but that you should bring something new to it. And so when I extrapolated this, it went in the direction it did. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be pro-life, and it wasn’t intended to be anti-abortion, but that’s where it went. If a spirit is fighting to stay alive and even become a member of the family, we can’t deny it its rights … I think in the end you can look at this as an allegory. We as people think we have the power over life and death, particularly in pregnancy, and once all the pieces fell together, yes, sure, it’s absolutely life-affirming. No question about it. I’m unafraid and unabashed about that. If people are going to give me a badge of courage, fine. But I’m past the point of people being concerned about what people think of me.
Asay: You’ve worked on a lot of faith-based projects in your career, from your work with Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures to helming One Night With the King [based on the story of Esther], and obviously Wraith reflects your beliefs as well. How important is it to bring your own sense of faith into your projects?
Sajbel: I once worked on a Disney movie … and the director was a real jerk. [And I wondered,] How can a jerk make a movie that’s tender and loving and sensitive? And then the movie came out and guess what? He couldn’t.
Who you are and what you bring to a film project will come through. You can take all the editors in the world and great composers and all of that and try to put lipstick on [a project], but ultimately, your personality will leach through.
I don’t think there’s ever been a situation to my knowledge where a studio or somebody said, “Oh, we’re not going to get him because he’s got this worldview” or whatever. There have been many examples of films that didn’t turn out the way producers wanted them because of the director’s personality. And I like to think that I’m a storyteller. I don’t think I could do a film that was against my worldview. I don’t think I could do that authentically. But that doesn’t really rule out a lot. There are still many great stories that might even be called secular stories that can be told.
You can stream Wraith, as of today, on a wide variety of digital platforms, and it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD.