Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 19, 2018 6:56 pm 
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The face in the car

Like any feat of narrative trickery, the English horror movie Ghost Stories is a nest of interlaced boxes. It begins, moreover, with a debating device: it anticipates the objections of the opponents. It does this by focusing on a professional skeptic, the self-satisfied Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), a bearded and bespectacled but bold fellow who goes around exposing performing psychics and promoters of the occult, a writer, lecturer, and gleeful debunker of the paranormal. Of course we know what's going to happen. He'll get his comeuppance, and wind up the scaredest of the scared. This is genre, and revels in some of the hoariest versions of it. Our pleasure is in the craft.

And craft there is. This is a place for character actors, vintage cars, and creepy-cozy interiors. Three things the Brits do really well. This is, by the way, from a theatre piece, another thing London excels at. (The film is from Nyman and Dyson's own successful stage show. Dyson is a member of the U.K. comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, who've done TV Brit-horror tributes.) And above all in the sets, the scenes, the atmosphere. Stephen Dalton of Hollywood Reporter calls the sets " a masterclass in a very British kind of gothic drabness." Horror is all about atmosphere. Here in some scenes the look is so good you want to take it home with you. The devil is in the details.

To begin with there is the disappearance of one of Professor Goodman's elder colleagues and early role models, a fellow who's written a series of books exposing fake ghosts. Where has he gone? All of a sudden the man contacts Goodman, and he goes to see him. The Professor finds him eventually in a terrible state, feeble and croaky, living in a trailer. Why has he withdrawn? He attacks Goodman: you're a fool, he says, abandon your rationalistic nonsense! He has lost his faith in the rational. Look at these, he says: and gives him a file with three cases in it.

And we know what they mean. Follow up on the three cases, and they'll scare the skepticism right out of you.

What we find out is that, scoffers though we may be, immersing ourselves in scary situations is going to make us a bit nervous, and maybe not wanting to walk down that dark, narrow hallway just now. I am indebted to the The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw for the word "portmanteau" applied here, and the notion that it's a tradition - he cites "Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, or the Ealing classic Dead of Night" - to interlock horror tales so they become scarier each time we sense that they're part of a larger tale. So it is with the three case histories, whose central figures each time Professor Goodman visits and hears from viva voce. By the time he's half way through, he's part of his own growing horror story, and seeing his own ghostly face in the driver's side window of his vintage red Jaguar. "Nyman and Dyson have created a weird world of menace, despair and decay," says the ebullient Bradshaw, and that reminds me of the paintings of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, who famously was hired by Hollywood to do the Picture of Dorian Gray.

We can't, of course, explain all about these cases or how they interlock - the finale that's a nihilistic smack on the head.

But we can say a bit about their general outlines. First is Tony, a decrepit night watchman (Paul Whitehouse), a fiercely angry, unpredictable man encountered by Goodman in a dark, gloomy pub, who flashes back to a terrible vision he had in an abandoned insane asylum he was guarding. (Of course he was!) Here is the first time when we get to see Dyson and Nyman's skill at constructing traditional scary sets. A dark and rusty, creaky and shadowy place this is, untamable by Tony's big electric torch.

Next for a visit to schoolboy Simon, played by Alex Lawther, who was the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. (Later, Lawther was to play, delightfully, James, the sympathetic 17-year-old psychopath in the TV miniseries "The End of the F***ing World" and a memorably trapped boy in a "Black Mirror" episode. He's great, and more versatile than you might think.) Simon has seen his horrors while out in the family car alone on a damp and lonely road. Goodman visits Simon, a creepy man-child with creepy parents, in his own room, which is covered with strange pictures. They sit there. This is like a scene in Kubrick's Clockwork Orange: every moment cranked up to fever pitch, madness pretending to be sane. Lawther's Simon is a virtuoso of jitters. It's a delightful tour de force. And his memory of the car ride, even more so. But nothing is better than that close room of his, and the tense atmosphere in it as Goodman sits there to hear his story.

Last we go to a successful stock trader, Mike (Martin Freeman), all dressed up in tweed and tattersall waistcoat, out in the country, at his estate, a posh, evil fellow, a prick and an anti-Semite who regards Goodman with disdain, while leading him up to describe the poltergeist he has encountered of his unborn child. This third scare is not dark, is not hysterical, as are the other two: it shows us terror hiding inside smugness, fear in a handful of snobbish dust. Even here there is an atmospheric interior, though it's only the wooden shed that Mike, with some effort, unlocks to take out a shotgun. Look at its weathered door: it's first cousin to the moldy corridors of the ancient loony bin through which Tony has staggered.

Each time, but especially the first and the last of these three, Goodman is drawn in and humbled, made to feel threatened or a fool, making way for his increasing disquiet as he feels these cases have some bearing on himself. The final scene ought to stay with you. It's a nightmare that might interest Julian Schnabel. Some moments are conventional here, and the big scares, as Bradshaw says, may owe more to the play setting, but it is the fine tuning the English do so well, the accents, the putdowns, the grime on the walls, the damp shadows, that are absolutely first rate and can put any Yank scare flick to shame. This is a good vintage.

I turned the light up bright before walking down the hall to the bedroom that night.

Ghost Stores, 98 mins., debuted at London Oct. 2017; also Busan, Fantasy, Frightfest, SxSW and Imagine film festivals, releasing on Internet and in theaters 20 April 2018. Metascore 73%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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