Movie Review: GHOST STORIES – another good contemporary “horror” movie, but does the ending show the writers’ true colours?

The horror genre is undergoing something of renaissance in the last few years.  A younger generation of moviemakers appear to have finally embraced the fact that above all else the genre embodies existential panic greater than no other.  I think we can all agree, whatever side of the political divide one happens to be, that the current state of the world is doing nothing to allay our fears.  Disenfranchisement, loneliness, depression – all emotions that are running at higher rates than at any time in recent memory.  Why do we need the familiar movie monsters to scare us, when those that lurk inside ourselves are so much worse?

Horror is my first love – I was exposed to the Hammer and Amicus movies as a child and it imprinted upon me a strong attraction to the darker side of life, but I’m also a pretty discerning viewer, and I don’t like any old shite just because it happens to be in the genre.  I was never all that interested in the celebrity monsters (though I have a soft spot for the early Universal movies) – I prefer the creative energies that emerge from indie moviemakers, and the last couple of years has seen some great talents arrive on the scene; the team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, Resolution, and The Endless), and auteur Mickey Keating (Ritual, Darling, Carnage Park) have a keen sense of the kind of horror that strikes the core of the modern soul.  No cartoonish Jasons or Freddy from these guys, the focus of their movies is the effect on the protagonist with real character-driven stories.  It’s been a good year for this kind of existentialism  – even when the movies don’t up the body count or splatter the screen with gore, what they do is creep into the mind, remind us that we are all just a couple of hard luck events from losing everything we have and are.

Ghost Stories, written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, adapted from their own stage play, has been compared to the British anthology movies from the 60s and 70s like The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From The Crypt – movies that were part of my own introduction to the genre – for me, though, the resemblance stops there.  I don’t know if it was Nyman and Dyson’s intention to just do a modern version of this kind of movie, but I didn’t truly feel that when I watched their movie.  When you watch from beginning to end, you realize that the anthology structure is a storytelling device that ultimately tells something completely different, in short, there’s a grand reveal that takes precedent over everything that comes before it.  I really enjoyed it, but at the same time a though lodged in the back of my mind: were Nyman and Dyson faintly embarrassed about the horror genre?  One can choose to look at the ending as the moviemakers saying, “all that horror stuff … it was just to get to this point, a necessary evil” and I think that while it’s clearly a straw man argument on my part, it’s a valid take on the movie.  As clever as it is, and as much as I liked it, there’s still that little nagging feeling …

The movie is uneven, but not so much in terms of quality.  It’s structured as three stories told to Philip Goodman, a paranormal debunker (played by Nyman), after he’s challenged to investigate them as examples of undeniable proof of the existence of the supernatural.  While the stories as told in cinematic terms are mostly gripping, they’re still just anecdotes as far as the character Goodman is concerned, and as timid and driven Goodman seems to be in his James Randi-like mission, he always seems to be possessed of a need to believe, regardless of how skeptical he appears on the outside.  It can’t be just accidental or bad writing – it’s something I appreciated, although Nyman could have played it a little more subtle for it to feel like a more authentic character study.

In chronological order, the stories are: a night watchman’s shift in a creepy old building is disrupted by a possibly malevolent entity; a teenager dangles on the edge of sanity as he recounts the story of hitting a demonic entity while driving through the woods; a rich man is plagued by poltergeist activity in his magnificent modern-day mansion while waiting for his wife to give birth to their first child.  These stories are reluctantly told to Goodman by the participants, and as I mentioned, they’re uneven,  The first story you’ve seen a few times before, and it reminded me a lot of the terrifically unnerving Session 9.  It’s good, but treads familiar ground.  The second story stars the excellent young actor Alex Lawther (so good in the Black Mirror episode Shut Up and Dance), but it’s much shorter than the others and didn’t convince me that it was necessary, despite an implication-heavy storyline.  My favourite of the three stars Martin Freeman (Cargo, Black Panther) as the haunted rich man, a far cry from the kind of characters audiences are more familiar with him playing.  I liked this one because of the sheer austerity of the location, and the cold detachment played by Freeman here.  It’s a modern take on the haunted house story with a significantly more personal angle to it.

Although these three stories make up the bulk of the running time, the actual story only starts when these tales are finished – to go any further here would put me deep into spoiler territory, so I won’t say anything more about the how the movie wraps up, other than it immediately went in a completely unexpected direction in both story and character.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think most people will feel the same way about it once they get past any initial confusion arising from the transition scene.  More than a few viewers will feel that “Aaaaaaaahh,” moment that comes a couple of minutes from the end.  I liked that part,  but didn’t love it, and it’s why I feel that Nyman and Dyson didn’t make a movie that committed to the genre.  Nevertheless, it’s also going to be an ending that a lot of people like because of that same reason.

It’s been a good year for thoughtful horror – here’s to it continuing!  Check out my reviews of Hereditary and Pyewacket if you’re looking for something in a similar vein.

3.5/5.0

© Andrew Hope, 2018

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Movie Review: 1922 – Based on a Stephen King novella, this movie has good production values, but is smothered by terrible pacing

As someone who used to be a huge Stephen King fan, and is currently going through a kind of King renaissance thanks to Audible, I’m finding both why I liked King so much in my teens, and why I didn’t as I grew older: in terms of premise and plot I like King just fine, but when it comes to characters and exposition, his prose gets drowned, submerged as if wearing concrete shoes.  1922, a Netflix-released adaptation of the story in King’s Full Dark, No Stars collection feels pretty similar, but this time it’s the pace at which the story unfolds.

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Movie Review: THE DISASTER ARTIST – Franco’s best directorial effort yet makes this biopic of “the worst move ever made” a must-see.

Back in 2010, I saw The Room.  By then it had started to gather a head of steam as “the worst movie ever made” (and there’s a compelling argument for that, not just hype), and the beginning of the cult following that fills theaters these days.  In those days it wan’t so much the event movie it is today, where everyone attends thinking they’re the next ironic comedy genius, riffing as the movie unreels.  I don’t normally watch movies like that (though when Star Wars:TOT was rereleased in the late 90s, a friend and I got ejected for riffing on The Empire Strikes Back.  Mea culpa, mea culpa …), I love and respect the medium too much to do that.  The Room is, to me, simply a piece of shit movie.

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Movie Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE – DC’s answer to the Marvel juggernaut is phenomenal only for the sheer lack of quality.

I finally saw Justice League last night – on the backs of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Wonder Woman, I can’t say I had a lot of interest in seeing it on opening weekend, and from its relatively disappointing opening domestic gross ($90 million), I wasn’t alone in putting it off.  As it turned out, it was the worst possible night to see it: winter finally roared into the Twin Cities, and driving back to my new home was a tense nightmare, thanks to 25 feet visibility and an icy, sleety mess.  Serves you right, the elements seemed to say, serves you right

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Movie Review: THE DARK TOWER – you don’t have to be a King fan to be offended by this horrendous adaptation or McConaughey’s insultingly bad performance.

I have no personal stake in The Dark Tower, I should say.  After trying numerous attempts to read The Gunslinger, book 1 of Stephen King’s magnum opus, I finally threw my hands up in defeat and gave up.  Not that I didn’t like King’s work at the time – quite the opposite, in fact.  In the mid to late 80s, I was a yuge fan of his work, and read his stuff voraciously, sometimes palpably impatient waiting for the books to finally be released in Scotland.  I still consider Pet Sematary one of my all time favourite books.  But when I tried to read The Dark Tower, it just didn’t feel like a Stephen King book.  A little later, me and Uncle Stevie just kind of drifted apart.  His work in the early 90s left me feeling unimpressed, so I stopped reading., and never got around to thinking of picking up the series again.

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Movie Review: ATOMIC BLONDE – some terrific fight scenes liven up an otherwise sub-Bourne action spy thriller.

The action movie genre has produced some notable game-changers in the last 35 years.  For me, these are movies that hit the still waters like an obnoxious kid doing a cannonball in your pool.  They might not have that massive instant impact, but the effect ripples out across the surface.  First Blood, Commando, Die Hard, Predator, Terminator 2The Matrix, and The Bourne Identity are the movies I’m referring to.  The splashes they made had a cumulative effect on the genre.  Without these movies, who knows where the action movie genre would be right now?  The Bourne Identity took The Matrix’s balletic violence to street level, and simultaneously muscled into the action spy thriller, whose main player up to that point was the Bond franchise.  Matt Damon, arguably at his peak in these movies, was a bone-crunching, take no prisoners mano-a-mano combatant, and it forced movies into a new era of fight choreography, where the scenes still have that videogame lack of consequence, but look and sound more natural.  The influence is most strongly seen in the post-Bourne Bond franchise, where Daniel Craig’s Bond is a return to the “enforcer” type played by Sean Connery, and in Marvel’s Captain America franchise.  The latest movie featuring this kind of hand to hand combat is this year’s Atomic Blonde.

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Movie Review: MR.HOLMES – Ian McKellen gives a typically great performance, but this Sherlock Holmes movie might not be what you expect.

Mr. Holmes is the adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, by Mitch Cullin, a different take on the oft-portrayed Sherlock Holmes.  In a way it’s as different a take as Guy Ritchie’s overplotted action/adventure movies that starred Robert Downey Jr, with the major difference being that Bill Condon’s movie is much more enjoyable.  The trouble is, if you go in looking for a “typical” Sherlock Holmes movie, you might feel hard done by.

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