Ghost Stories (2017)
★ / ★★★★
British horror anthology “Ghost Stories,” written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, attempts to deliver a spooky time by minimizing special and visual effects and underlining aptly executed light and shadow, creepy interiors, a slow but calculated pacing, and performances that draw the viewers in. However, the material fizzles out way too soon; by the final twenty minutes, it has nothing to hold onto but a series of clichés often found in awful horror films. What results is an experience that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), debunker of the paranormal, is given a manila envelope that contains three enigmatic cases, unsolved by Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a former supernatural investigator that Goodman looked up to during his formative years. The opening segment is strong and so it builds anticipation for what is about to come. Key, I think, is Nyman’s portrayal of a man of evidence and science. Although an academic, Goodman is not the scholastic and inaccessible type. Instead, he is played with a simplicity, an ordinariness—an important trait because people must open up to him to reveal their terrifying encounters.
The only worthwhile of the bunch is Tony Matthews’ story (Paul Whitehouse). The former night watchman in an abandoned correctional facility is driven to alcoholism by not only a mysterious encounter but also by life’s unfortunate turn of events. The flashback to Tony’s final night in the former psychiatric hospital is effectively executed, particularly in the rising action involving a ghost that wishes to play with him—which begins with the unplugging of cords that supply electricity to his office. Anybody who has worked in a building by himself can relate to the sudden chill of hearing a noise from a corner, or upstairs, or a room right next door… when nobody is supposed to be there to make a sound. In my case, I used to work in a modest museum and at times I would hear a noise, like creaking floorboards, from the supply storage upstairs. (“The building is old,” I told myself.)
Curious but never reaching its full potential is the story of Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a young man who comes from a household of controlling parents. The opening few minutes is bizarre and intriguing. It gives the impression that nothing is as it seems inside the house, from the eerie photographs to the manner in which the parents simply stand next to each other in the kitchen without sharing a word. Simon’s story does not involve the house but rather an encounter in the dark woods. This is when the picture begins to fall apart. Cosmetics and costumes are employed in a jarring way, never scary but occasionally silly. This serves as precedent for the final case—which had the potential to be a standout.
I am not surprised that Martin Freeman decided to play the role of Mike Priddle, case number three, a man, like the two subjects before him, whose life had been upended by an unexplained phenomenon. What separates Mike’s story from the other three, however, is the specificity of the possible haunting: the baby’s room. You see, the doctors advised that he go home while his pregnant wife stays in the hospital for further observation. As expected, Freeman’s performance is the strongest, delivering a wealth of emotions every time he speaks. So it is most unfortunate that his storyline is the shortest and far undercooked. While Tony and Simon’s stories are given time to build, Mike’s story is rushed in order to make room for Goodman’s story.
The film might have been stronger had we remained to know little about Goodman’s background—even though he is the eyes from which we look through during the course of the interviews. To me, Goodman’s childhood story is junk for the most part because it serves only to deliver an ineffective, unbelievable, and unearned twist ending. After all, the best horror stories retain a mystery about them. This one makes the crucial mistake of attempting to explain everything.
Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.