As British cinema entered one of its fallow periods during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was one reliable fallback for producers looking to make bank: the venerable horror omnibus. Featuring three or four tales of terror framed within a wraparound story, films like Tales That Witness Madness and Vault of Horror starred some of the biggest names of horror, including Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, as well as the occasional old pro like Ralph Richardson.
With the industry moribund by the end of the ‘70s the genre went into the deep freeze, where it has remained — until now. Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 27) breathes new life into the venerable horror anthology at a time when British cinema is once again in robust health.
The framing story revolves around television personality Professor Goodman (co-director Nyman), a debunker of all things supernatural on the popular series ‘Psychic Cheats.’ Inspired by the groundbreaking 1970s work of his hero, psychologist Charles Cameron, Goodman spends his time unmasking charlatans around the country.
A mysterious package drops through his letterbox and the professor finds himself invited to Cameron’s retirement home, a decrepit caravan on the seaside, where he’s in for a surprise: the elderly shrink (Leonard Byrne) has completely changed his tune and is now a firm believer in the supernatural. Goodman’s task is to get the bottom of three of his mentor’s cases and prove him wrong — and himself right.
Twists, turns, and terror lay ahead as Goodman meets alcoholic night watchman Tony (Paul Whitehouse), nervous schoolboy Simon (Alex Lawther), and financial bigwig Mike (Martin Freeman, Bilbo Baggins from Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy, and more recently CIA agent Everett Ross in Black Panther). The three have all had frightful experiences – can the Professor prove it’s all been in their heads?
While each of the stories is well composed and thoroughly creepy, they are also rather traditional and not particularly shocking. What does shock and surprise, however, is the wraparound story — without giving too much away, it’s brilliantly conceived and executed. Also of note is Ghost Stories‘ complete absence of blood and gore: this is the best (and least gruesome) horror film since The Babadook.
‘Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami’
I was looking forward to Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami (also opening at the Shattuck on Friday), but the film is a bit of a missed opportunity. While director Sophie Fiennes doesn’t intrude into the proceedings, and avoids the usual trappings of the typical rockumentary — there are no snapshots of the Jamaican-born Jones as a child, and no talking heads proclaiming her genius — the film perhaps errs too much in the opposite direction, opting for little in the way of back story and context.
While we see Jones spending time with the folks back in JA, we barely get to know them, nor do we get any insights into her creative process — an irksome oversight underscored by maddeningly brief studio scenes with Kingston’s greatest rhythm section, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.
The film is rescued, however, by generous footage of Jones in concert: simply put, she’s one of the most assured and riveting performers of this or any other era. Despite its serious flaws, this is a must-see for fans of the great chanteuse.