Those Of A Nervous Disposition

Ghost Stories – SPOILER review

The theatrical production of Ghost Stories was created by Andy Nyman and League of Gentlemen alumnus Jeremy Dyson. It followed in the footsteps of the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman In Black’, being another theatrical supernatural thriller with the express aim of making its audience jump out of their skins at exactly the same point. The host of a paranormal investigation show, ‘Professor’ Philip Goodman (Nyman) is presented with three cases that tested the rationalist point of view of his hero, paranormal debunker Charles Cameron.

The jump scare is the simplest and easiest type of cinematic shock. It’s a predictable mechanism, but that anticipation is part of the appeal. Before the audience reaches the actual scare there is the obligatory misdirection and false shock, nicknamed a ‘bus’ after it was demonstrated so influentially by Jacques Tournier’s ‘Cat People’. By now viewers are fully aware this is a fake out, and director and audience play a game about how long they will have to wait. How many times will the film maker tease them by inflating and puncturing the suspense?  Even so, diminishing returns set in a long time ago and these days the scare itself is usually submerged beneath a deafening orchestral sting, and probably a scream and a sub-bass thump, regardless of whether there’s any cause for it onscreen.

In ‘Ghost Stories’ the jump scares are well executed and unlike many other modern horrors (e.g. the noisy, hyperactive ‘Winchester’) they are properly earned. The film makes the audience wait well beyond the point where they – educated in the deliberate deceptions of pace – would expect them to occur. The camera lingers behind a character’s POV, following them reluctantly. Shallow depth of field means that even as the spectres are gradually revealed, they remain blurred and more horrific to the unrestrained imagination. The camera is used as a proxy for the audience, subliminally warning them not to look full on at the ghosts.

Whilst the film keeps busy exploiting the potential of the three hauntings for scares, it works pretty well. It’s only when the underlying arc of Goodman’s character begins to take centre stage that things  lose focus and perhaps confuse the audience expectations. The film uses a portmanteau structure, borrowed from Hammer and Amicus anthology horror films, but most directly from the Ealing Studios supernatural chiller ‘Dead of Night’. Whilst it aids Goodman’s journey, to some extent it denies the ghost stories proper resolution. There is no revelation of past crimes or exorcism of secrets. What do these ghosts want? On top of this, there is an opening flashback sequence which goes to great lengths to illustrate the hero’s disbelief stems from the effect of an oppressive orthodox Jewish background. But although the story references anti-semitism later on, this initial sequence feels detached and unnecessary to justify the narrator’s rational and humanist views. It almost feels like the introduction to a completely different film, or maybe it’s a piece of misdirection, considering what is to come.

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Where ‘Ghost Stories’ does score is in its use of settings and the atmosphere they conjure. The ghosts come from the recent past or the present day. No Victorian grey ladies here. With just a brief excursion into the woods for a bit of arboreal dread, decaying seaside towns, claustrophobic suburban housing and discarded industrial spaces show the dreadful work of time and the fragility of human endeavour. The victims of the hauntings are alone in the dark, clutching a single piece of failing technology – phone, walkie talkie or torch – that substitutes for the guttering gothic candelabra to protect them from the dark.

These men, and they are all men, are in differing ways isolated, wounded, trapped in their environments, almost ghosts themselves. In fact, all of the main cast are white men. There is only one speaking part for a BAME actor. As the story goes on, by accident or design, it seems to home in on the fears and frailties of white British men. Even more telling, the only significant roles for women are the various spectres and demons the haunted men encounter. The men are assailed by the spirits of dead orphan girls, still born children, and the screaming spectre of a wife who dies in childbirth. Were it not for the fauns of the forest, it’d be a full set. There’s nothing wrong with exploring specific male fears, in fact it’s extremely timely, but how much is conscious and deliberate? The stated theme of ‘Ghost Stories’ is how people create their own ghosts via the guilt they carry through life, but the isolation, emotional constipation and functional redundancy of modern men comes out far stronger, even as the plot yanks the rug from under the viewer and makes us doubt the truth of everything we’ve just been watching.

A frustrated Goodman returns to face his mentor, dismissing the supposed paranormal case histories as the product of life bearing down on frail humans, whereupon onscreen reality itself is ripped in two and the narrator finds himself heading for a reckoning that’s much closer to home. He’s actually on life support in a hospital bed, a victim of ‘locked in syndrome’, after an abortive suicide attempt. The stories the viewer has just watched are in fact the product of Goodman’s imprisoned imagination working on his surroundings as he lies paralysed in bed. On first viewing it appears to fit the overall theme of the rationalist, disbelieving paranormal investigator, and confirms his worldview, but with a dramatic irony. He has gone from sceptic to doubter, only for it to be revealed that this debate is being acted out in his head.  Does he attempt suicide because he has been disabused of his rational worldview, or because he has found it leaves a spiritual void he can’t fill? It’s a point the screenplay doesn’t articulate well enough. Somehow it calls back to the home movie exposition at the start of the film, but not in any clear manner.

Part of the thrill of a ghost story is the audience allowing themselves to entertain the idea that the supernatural might be real, and enjoying the fear that provokes. The ending to ‘Ghost Stories’ appears to stamp all over that, like our hero invading the stage to blow the cover of a fraudulent psychic. It leaves behind a slight feeling of being cheated by a cleverly executed trick. It’s not ‘it was all a dream’, but at the same time the filmmakers appear to enjoy the technique of the bait and switch more than what it could have said about their characters.

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Claws For Thought

Black Panther (dir.  Ryan Coogler, 2018)
** MILD SPOILERS **
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A ‘fair use policy’, copyright free Black Panther, yesterday.

I’m not a fan of superhero films per se, and it’s only the examples which break the mould in some way (e.g. ‘Wonder Woman’) that I generally bother to go and see. Despite all the hype (of which there was a breathless amount) ‘Black Panther’ actually lives up to its reputation. 

Apart from providing more onscreen representation for actors of colour (and women) than the last ten years of mainstream USA cinema put together, ‘Black Panther’ is a sharply written origin story that remembers the ‘adventure’ part of ‘action adventure’. The story is actually about something, not just men in armour punching other men in armour from space/a government lab/Valhalla. 

Instead of trashing New York yet again, ‘Black Panther’ is told mostly in the superhero’s own country, with occasional James Bond style plot point visits to ‘London, England’ and South Korea. Having said that, early on in the story, it does look as if the film is pitching a new 007, with Chadwick Boseman strolling round an underground facility whilst Q – sorry Letitia Wright – demonstrates the latest crime fighting gadgets.  

The film’s African setting lends it an individual style and presence unique on the Marvel superhero conveyor belt, but also gifts it conflict and jeopardy. Wakanda isn’t a republic with a civil service, it’s a monarchy, a structure that can be deftly usurped by the film’s loping villian Killmonger* (Michael B Jordan), so that the apparatus of the state is automatically turned against Black Panther. Other rival tribes in the the nation are antagonistic, then indifferent and must be courted for support. All of this helps to soften the familiarity when inevitably the film narrows in on two rival Black Panthers duking it out in a cave. Then again, at least in making it personal, the film avoids the CGI blizzard finales of ‘X Men: Apocalypse’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.

I doubt I’ll be catching another Marvel film any time soon, after all, they will rise (like heroes do) year after year, won’t they? ‘Black Panther’ stands head and shoulders above the pack though, even making the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and the post credits scene seem like mechanical indulgences. Maybe it’s time for Marvel’s very own ‘Rogue One’?
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* Accidental Alan Partridge: “What’s the worst kind of ‘monger‘?”

The Memory Factory

I never felt so old as the day when I was walking through Liverpool, near the Cavern Club, where the Beatles began their career. Among the numerous music pubs and themed bars, there were 60s bars, 70s bars, 80s bars….90s bars. That’s just wrong. Actually, the venue called ‘The Cavern Club’ isn’t even the real thing: it’s a replica built one door down from where the original was filled in decades ago. But if it looks like the original, maybe it fulfils the purpose for the Beatles tourists coming to see it?

I got another shock of generation gap angst when discussing ‘Alien: Covenant’ with a friend who’s in their twenties. His knowledge of the Alien films began with seeing ‘Prometheus’. As we discussed the tropes of the series, it became clear that he’d never seen the 1979 film, or any of the sequels.  This is anecdotal evidence, but some more investigation online showed me that more and more, the current cinema audience haven’t seen ‘classics’ of my generation and feel no need to catch up with them via rentals. My immediate reaction was to goldfish for a moment then recommend/insist they watch these seminal texts of genre cinema. But even as I was saying it, there was something that felt like your grandad trying to get you into his Fats Domino 78s.

The summer blockbuster was invented in the seventies, first with Jaws, then Star Wars. Together with Alien and Blade Runner,  George Lucas’ magpie impression of the Saturday morning matinee completed a triumvirate of films that defined SF cinema for decades since. But perhaps they’re now reaching a point of exhaustion. Their sheer age, invisible to the original audience, has taken its toll on their influence and relevance. Perhaps to present day cinema-goers, watching something from the seventies would be like my ten year old self watching 1920s silent films.

Thanks to the internet, and video hosting sites in particular, the target audience for the current Alien series consume cinema history differently. They can cherry-pick the image systems and pivotal scenes that these films added to the lexicon of cinema. The battered star fighters, and dented androids of Star Wars, the smog-laden techno-noir of Blade Runner, the dank, dripping spaceships and perverse machine eroticism of ‘Alien’, they’ve been blended into a soup of visual DNA for current genre cinema. Or put another way, they’re part of the geological strata now, not the forest growing on top.

All of this raised for me (retrospectively) the questions why anyone would try to make a sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, why make it now and whether someone should really stop making sequels to ‘Alien’. That said, Denis Villeneuve has produced a second episode to the Blade Runner story that shares the individual spirit that James Cameron brought to ‘Aliens’, honouring the original but taking firm control of the property. At the same time, that balancing act puts the director on a hiding to nothing: having to communicate the selling points of the original idea to an audience for whom its visual language is no longer novel, whilst also keeping on board first generation fans by not straying too far from the canon, something ‘Star Wars – The Last Jedi’ struggled with.

‘Blade Runner: 2049’ is too long, but at the same time I felt it carried most of its running time with a self-assured grandeur. I’d be interested to see a ‘Director’s Cut’ that’s about half an hour shorter. It’s a bit like the difference between listening to The Doors (look ’em up, kids!) on record or on stage: excellent at writing tight pop songs, which played live, include an ages long instrumental solo, before diving back into the tight pop song structure at the end. The running time of ‘2049’ may be excessive, the tempo of scenes slow and meditative, but the rhythm of the film is like an oil tanker at top revs. The sheer bulk of the enterprise, its gravity draws the viewer in.

As in the original, ‘2049’ starts with a massive ECU of an eye, this time of replicant K’s, rather than Deckard. As the supposed window to the soul, something K’s boss thinks he’s been getting  along fine without. His arc through the film is of Pinocchio having an existential crisis. Where things start to wobble is with K’s nemesis Wallace (Jared Leto). If the hero is only as good as his antagonist, then 2049 doesn’t give K much to kick against. Wallace’s casual brutality and slaughtering of his own replicants delivers an initial shock, but it’s a very crude way to communicate that he’s Not A Nice Person. Tyrell in the first chapter was far more ambiguous and therefore interesting. Together with the standard bad guy logorrhoea and Conspicuous Physical Deformity, Wallace comes across on a par with a mediocre Bond villain.

Even so, 2049 succeeds in illustrating a fictional world with aesthetic tools apart from the screenplay itself – rather like the original in fact. The space and silence of monumental settings allows the senses of the audience to expand and absorb the created world and be absorbed by it. Characters are dwarfed by man-made edifices and vast, ruined landscapes. Washed in saturated colour or obscured by veils of fog, smoke or rain, the epic sprawl of solar farms, slums, cities and fields of junk are themselves humbled by decay and pollution that eats them in turn. In contrast to the noir chiaroscuro of Blade Runner, 2049 presents more daylight, albeit washed out greys bound by fog or tinted by red desert dust. The Hans Zimmer score riffs on Vangelis’ analog whale song but with a louder, serrated edge. It sounds rusty and distorted, as if coming from a blown bass cabinet. The decay of the first film has truly set in.

After the disappointing response to both ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Alien: Covenant’ , even Ridley Scott seems to be coming round to the idea that the innovations of ‘Alien’ have a shelf life. The irony is that the diehard fans of the series and its iconography demand that each  new chapter contain repetitions of the scenes that made the first film so shocking and new. The brutal life cycle of the alien and the uncanny iconography of HR Giger have been steadily diluted ever since 1979. The life cycle of the alien now takes place with impatient  haste, second-guessing the attention spans of the audience who have already familiarised themselves with chest burster, face hugger et al on the internet. Meanwhile the diehard audience expects a female hero, but only because in the 70s Scott took a risk and cast against the scripted gender. The fact that this made both Warrant Officer Ripley and Sigourney Weaver icons ought to have pointed the way for Scott when questioned recently about the issue of diversity in casting. He saw it as a purely financial issue – studios will always prefer to cast an established box office draw – completely forgetting that those names on the marquee aren’t born, they’re created by directors like him making a deliberate choice.

During the intervening decades, studios have taken the risk out of sequels by designing them into the filmmaking process right from birth. The production line of DC and Marvel superhero films is planned well into the next decade, and the characters will be put through as many iterations as is necessary to get them to fit with the nature of their particular franchise. The Incredible Hulk took three goes, IRCC. The first ‘Iron Man’ film is now a decade old and in the style of ‘Logan’s Run’, the Avengers franchise seems to be heading for one last party before being retooled, upgraded and replaced for a new viewing generation. Maybe then I should be less precious about Alien and Blade Runner. My instinct is that having just about got away with one workable sequel, Denis Villeneuve should remember ‘Aliens’ and quit whilst he’s ahead. Ridley Scott it seems, may have other ideas.

I’ve still got my VHS copy of the unaltered ‘Star Wars’, but I can’t remember the last time I watched it…..