Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ghost Stories (2017)

Just watched Ghost Stories written and directed by the team of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, and starring Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther. This was a bit of a surprise insomuch as it mainly succeeds as a kind of 2010s take on 1940s British horror pictures, perhaps most incisively the spooky 1945 ghost-themed anthology film Dead of Night, after which Ghost Stories tends to play as almost wholly postmodern but at least, when truly necessary, earnest--and yet, by turns almost bombastically humorous and deeply-but-fleetingly sad--tribute after a sort. Numerous other horror pictures, not all of them British, are lovingly recalled, too, but this is not mere pastiche. The screenplay by Dyson and Nyman is a sturdily-constructed piece; even if a certain final act shifting of meaning does not fly for particular viewers, the point that it seemed readily apparent that this was where the entire 98-minute skein was destined all along mitigates from the sensation that at least some people may have in believing the film has played some cruel trick on them.

No, if anything the final movement of Ghost Stories is almost too pat, too pedestrian. That the film features a visual schema that keeps the viewer guessing at all, even if there is nothing especially singularly shocking in the way certain antagonistic supernatural specters and apparitions are depicted or the meaning behind their appearances is brought to overarching meaning, is commendable. Fortunately, the almost soothing nature of the picture's murky and shadowy mise-en-scene wins us over in spite of whatever limitations the film's trajectory become apparent. 

It is in that atmospheric minutiae, in the sweeping vistas such as a wind-burnt knoll dotted by a pair of caliginous silhouettes, that the hard-earned lucubration of the horror genre falls away from us, almost akin to suspending disbelief entire, and the film makes the most out of that audience participation in allowing the magicians to do their work. An extended sequence with the claustrophobic setting of a condemned women's mental asylum playing its own character is altogether predictable but almost surprisingly effective, heightening tension through tricks involving sight and sound. A much-later set-piece in a large house is perhaps the film at its strongest, following Freeman's snorting, ostensibly insouciant character as he discovers a terrible secret.

The film boasts plenty of calling cards, from the aforementioned Dead of Night to The Haunting (Robert Wise's classic), from David Lynch's Eraserhead to a host of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century horror pictures. Ghost Stories, to reiterate a point, is quite funny in places and reminiscent, too, of Hammer Horror features, particularly ones marinated in a sense of tongue-in-cheek British humor. The Monster Club by Roy Ward Baker with its three tales of ghosts and paranormal entities is another signpost as Ghost Stories mixes the funny with the ghoulish, the offbeat British wisecrack with the macabre. 

While the film exhibits plenty of surprising elements, what lingers most, even after a final credits serenaded by an inspired, rather shocking popular tune, is the psychological ramifications for the protagonist and the orbit of sinister and wicked forces about him. And, especially, one horrifically motionless shot, of a man in bed and some sort of specter quite deliberately haunting him, lights flickering on and off like some rock concert stage. Sometimes a good "B-movie" gives one a great deal to chew on, as it were, with one lasting image. Ghost Stories fits the bill.

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