Wednesday 18 April 2018

Unholy trilogies: "Ghost Stories"

There's a sorry tradition of notable British horror films being undersold and left to fall into obscurity by cautious, careless or clueless distributors: the memory immediately alights upon the sad tale of The Wicker Man, recut by British Lion to go out as the second half of a double feature in 1973 before being reconstituted, literally, as landfill. Ghost Stories probably won't suffer that fate - it's had a not unreasonable push by Lionsgate - but its misfortune was to enter an already competitive marketplace at the exact same moment as A Quiet Place, the horror sensation of early 2018, and a film that had the generic and financial advantages of leaping out of nowhere onto some 500-plus screens. By contrast, this is a work tangled up with issues of history and precedent: a Hammer or Amicus-style portmanteau, adapted by writer-directors Andy Nyman (pro magician and actor) and Jeremy Dyson (offscreen mastermind of The League of Gentlemen) from their West End stage hit, but in such a way as to make one wonder how something so expansive could ever have worked within the confines of theatre - a neat trick for a lowish-budget directorial debut to have pulled off.

In part, it's a matter of scale, and how the filmmakers have thought about making that modest budget work for them. This is a film of comparatively tiny actors playing withered men who seem all the more exposed and vulnerable for being at the mercy of ace cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland's widescreen compositions: the stage show has been opened out in several directions simultaneously, allowing us to feel these characters' down-to-the-bone solitude - easily the film's most chilling aspect - all the more. Our notional identification point, Nyman's Professor Goodman, strikes us as something of a sadsack from the off, a stagecrashing partypooper in his day job as host of TV's Psychic Cheats drawn out from his dingy hovel to meet a predecessor in the field: an ailing recluse who disappeared several decades previously only to reemerge in a coastal caravan site that looks very much like the edge of the known world, played by an actor wearing such heavy ageing latex that we're immediately set to suspicious-detective mode. This figure hands Goodman a file containing the three cases that gave him cause to doubt his rationalism, and may be linked to his present, enfeebled state: these involve Paul Whitehouse as a nightwatchman unravelled by the failure of his personal relationships and undergoing a bad shift at the office (an abandoned asylum); Alex Lawther, British cinema's new poster boy for the highly strung, as a quaking teen stranded in the dark woods; and Martin Freeman as a snorting finance type confronted by a poltergeist while waiting for his pregnant wife to come home. 

The isolation, in other words, runs right across class divisions: it's recognisably a Brexit-era horror movie (some of the Whitehouse character's attitudes identify it as much), and if the locations and framing will be familiar to long-term horror fans, the psychology connecting the three stories, the attempt to penetrate warped or scrambled mindsets and thereby head off the usual crash-bang-wallop, feels new or new-ish. What's crucial is that this is an investigation being conducted by a decidedly closed-off investigator. In his brisk impatience to prove his thesis (and thus himself) right, Goodman - there's a reason he's been given that name, as there almost always is in the movies - overlooks the Greenawayesque numbers tucked away in the backs and sides of frames; these digits recur so often even the most casual of viewers might break off from texting to ponder what they'll add up to. It's a very subtle film, with nothing that jolted me out of my seat - though I'll concede such jolts need not necessarily be a goal for horror filmmakers - but it does a lot with the combo of creeping dread and shrewd showmanship where it counts, peppering its Sleuth-like structural sleights-of-hand with careful attention to the details that set us to believe in the realities these characters find themselves trapped within. (League fans will doubtless recognise and appreciate the use of a plastic shopping bag to connect two of its strands.)

I wonder whether mass audiences will go so happily along with the untethered weirdnesses of its fourth and final act, in which our conjurers pull away the curtain and confront Goodman (and, through him, us) with the true nature of the sickness he's dealing with, a development that turns the film inwards if not entirely inside-out. (Once you've witnessed Freeman burping a shit-stained, catfood-chomping demon-baby, there may be no easy way back.) Where A Quiet Place establishes the rules of its game in its opening moments, and sticks to them to the bitter end, Nyman and Dyson seem keener to rip up their rulebook altogether, true as that methodology is to their project of overturning meek complacency and complicity in whichever dark corners they find it; some, I guarantee you, will be thrown, which may have an impact on word-of-mouth. Still, for the most part, this is clever and inventive homegrown horror, blessed with a streak of playfulness that helps to offset the cruelties its narrative alights upon. It's clearly bound for cult status and a merry afterlife on DVD and streaming services, which may provide some consolation in the long run, although one suspects the filmmakers would still rather have the big fat bonus cheques and untroubled career progression that come from stellar early-weekend ticket receipts.

Ghost Stories is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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