Thursday, 8 November 2018

Ghost Stories (2018) - Movie Review

We tend to feel easier when we know what’s going on. As long as there’s something that resembles a rational explanation for the frequently chaotic nature of our existence, it makes the whole mess feel a little less daunting. Hell, my entire line of work relies on people wanting explanations for things, or at the very least, a perspective that could possibly give way to explanations. But when we can’t quite figure out what is happening around us, we tap into the one database we have permanent access to for answers: Our minds.

What we can’t explain immediately, we fill in the gaps with what we know. But because no one person has ultimate knowledge of everything (and the one who does must be profoundly bored by how predictable it all is), that is an imperfect process. So when gaps remain between what we know and what we don’t, our filling agent of choice is what we believe. The things we can’t outright prove to be factual, but that something deep inside us insists is reality. But belief can be a very dangerous thing, especially when reality doesn’t match it perfectly.

It’s this very dilemma that Professor Phillip Goodman (played by co-director/co-writer Andy Nyman) has made a living off of: Looking at those who claim to have otherworldly understanding of how this world operates, and calling them out for the charlatans they are. The opening scene featuring him dressing down a cold reader gives a clear introduction to how order-centric his worldview is, not to mention his past giving him all the reason to know that superstition can be hazardous. But when famed sceptic Charles Cameron gets in contact with Phillip, that worldview is tested. He gives Phillip three cases that he had previously looked over that, to this day, he still can’t figure out a rational explanation for. Phillip sets out to find the people involved and prove there is no such thing as the supernatural… and it is here where the film’s ingenuity with the matter begins to surface.

This story originated as a stage play by Nyman and League Of Gentlemen alumnus Jeremy Dyson, although that isn’t immediately apparent just from looking at this production. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s camera work gives the film an extremely claustrophobic edge, tying us down next to the characters who claim to have seen the supernatural and watching them freak the fuck out. And yet, with that closeness comes a widening of everything beyond those characters: The dark halls of an abandoned insane asylum, the eerie quiet of a forest at night, and the seeming domestic comfort of a middle-class home.

What we don’t see, in classic horror fashion, ends up being the scariest, although not always for good reasons. In a rather smartarse twist on that adage, the film is populated with quite a few sudden and sharp noises that break the silence, allowing for an easy jump scare. With how atmospheric and genuinely creepy the rest of the film is, that recurring break in tension ends up sapping away at what makes it work… but not entirely. Through the eyes of a grizzled nightwatchman (The Fast Show veteran Paul Whitehouse), a perpetually skittish teenager (Alex Lawther of The End Of The F***ing World) and a self-assured country ‘prophet’ (Martin Freeman, who has basically been in everything you’ve ever seen), the film’s take on familiar genre tropes make for quite riveting viewing.

But this film’s merits go beyond simply being an effective anthology film; it also serves as one of the Lynchiest horror films in quite a while, and it all ties back to our dear Professor. Namely, why he does the work he does. What makes a person devote their lives to such an endeavour? Not everyone in the world can be Derren Brown, decrypting the many ways our own psychology convinces us of what isn’t, so why him?

Well, what makes a person so determined to prove that the supernatural doesn’t exist? What makes them think that they are bestowed with enough intelligence to see through the smoke and mirrors? Is it simply because these ideas aren’t true? Or is it because we just want to believe that they aren’t? The film taps into one of the oldest horror tropes, the sceptic who becomes convinced of the true, supernatural way of the world, and twists it on its head to create the kind of film that will leave you a bit shaky as the credits roll. It shows that belief is indeed a dangerous thing… even if that belief is thinking the world can be explained.

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