Its title a bit of a misnomer, The Ghost of Saint Aubin doesn’t feature traditional, literal ghosts (depends on how you interpret it) so much as a supernatural storyline that channels the spirits of slavery, social injustice and economic iniquity in a smart, if somewhat jumbled, tale of love, loss and legacy.
It features three main story lines that branch off into centuries-old flashbacks but converge in modern-day Detroit. In one, a local drug dealer named Al (writer-director Alan Bradley) is searching for his missing girlfriend, Nicole (Ashlee McLemore), trying to figure out if she vanished on purpose or if she was the victim of foul play.
Meanwhile, Global News Network TV reporter Carter McBride (Brian Marable) arrives in Detroit to do a multi-part piece on the city’s decline in recent decades. As part of his report, he interviews Detroit architect Benjamin Banneker (Joel Steingold), who’s involved (through some illegal activities) in developing an upscale real estate project in the notoriously high-crime neighborhood along St. Aubin Street.
As part of Al’s search for Nicole, he visits a “holistic psychiatrist” named Dr. Akbar (Joel Mitchell), who agrees to help him find her if Al helps him locate a relic rumored to reside somewhere on St. Aubin Street. Akbar explains the history of the street: how the St. Aubin family were slave owners who escaped the Haitian Revolution and how, over the years, the area has been the site of multiple mass murders — first in the 1920s and then again in the 1990s.
Past and present come together as the mystery unfolds for these flawed, tragic characters — though not in as clear a fashion as you might like. Despite the ambiguity, the gist of the message remains powerfully intact: that of a city built on a legacy of blood, greed and inequity dealing with its consequences. Bradley highlights Detroit’s socio-economic issues, from crime, drugs and gentrification to corrupt politicians, jaded police and overzealous citizens taking things into their own hands. As admirable as this spotlight is, however, it threatens to distract from the plot at times — particularly a random lighthearted news story on medical marijuana.
Although Bradley is white, the bulk of the cast is black, collectively representing some of those most directly impacted by the economic downturn in the Motor City. The Ghost of Saint Aubin‘s mix of urban legend and urban decay is reminiscent of the 1992 classic Candyman, even going so far as to similarly stage a climax involving a missing baby in a desolate urban wasteland.
While it might be a bit talky for some tastes, the script is remarkably literate for a genre film (granted, it’s as much drama/mystery as it is horror/suspense), citing references to Frank Lloyd Wright, ancient Egypt, holistic medicine, voodoo and colonial history against the backdrop of a “classy” jazzy soundtrack. What makes the story all the more fascinating is how much real-life history it incorporates — in particular, the notorious mass murders that occurred more than 60 years apart on the same street. (It shouldn’t be surprising, though, given Bradley, AKA Al Profit, has primarily been a documentarian, focusing on criminal history.)
The dialogue feels natural, and where it doesn’t, the cast makes up for it with solid performances. Even if the editing and direction are a bit raw in places, The Ghost of Saint Aubin is a wonderful, thoughtful achievement within the so-called urban horror realm, whose standards have unfortunately been set pretty low.