Ghost Stories

ghost storiesGhost Stories is a low-key movie that blends the supernatural and the mundane into a genuinely eerie episodic tale. In structure Ghost Stories is a loose anthology, with the traditional three short stories surrounded by the framing story. But instead of tying everything neatly together, the framing story becomes more and more disjointed until it finally falls apart entirely. What is revealed is frightening, but not in the way you would expect.

Ghost Stories uses all the trappings of traditional supernatural fare, with revenants, wild devils, and irresistibly spooky places creating the chills. There are well-placed jump scares, but no blood and little violence. It doesn’t need it. The fine cast and mysterious episodes are quite terrifying without any gore.

“Like everyone else I presumed you were dead.” “How do you know I’m not?”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories begins with Phillip Goodman, a professor who has devoted his life to debunking claims of the paranormal. He is summoned to a remote seaside caravan by Charles Cameron, a fellow debunker who disappeared many years earlier. Cameron gives Goodman three cases he has not been able to disprove, and challenges him to show that the cases can be explained as ordinary events.

The first is a night watchman at an abandoned asylum, tormented by the ghost of a young girl. The second is a teenaged boy who ran into the Devil on a lonely road. The last is a successful businessman haunted by a poltergeist, who may be his wife who died giving birth to a monstrous child.

It soon becomes clear that Goodman is somehow connected to these cases. For him, that is the scariest thing of all.

“No frayed edges, no loose ends, all straight, all smooth”

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories is full of strange cuts and stutters in the visual flow, building the sense of unreality. The colors are rich but diminished by a wintery, overcast light. Scenes are set in desolate, run-down places full of trash and broken things, or in spaces so sleek and spare there is no human warmth to them. The atmosphere these techniques create is one of loneliness and threat, with no safe place to run to.

The film loses some of its sharp edge when it borrows too obviously. Ghost Stories lifts the rushing-over-the-ground effect straight from Evil Dead, and the tearing of the fabric of reality is a familiar trick from multiple films. Still, though, the obvious cribbing can’t weaken the overall sense of dread.

“I don’t want anyone thinking there’s anything wrong with me”

Ghost StoriesThe film is written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, based on their play of the same name. Nyman also stars in it as the brittle, troubled Phillip Goodman. Martin Freeman plays the overachieving businessman Mike Priddle, with his usual likability buried under arrogant cynicism. Alex Lawther is heartbreaking as the fragile, terrorized teenager Simon Rifkind, while Paul Whitehouse is effectively blunt as the beleaguered watchman Tony Matthews.

Watching these characters suffer as they try to understand their experiences is as disturbing as the horrors themselves. 

“The brain sees what it wants to see”

Ghost Stories sets itself in the vast grey area between supernatural phenomena and a mind’s tricks on itself to craft its sad and spooky narrative. Objective truth doesn’t matter, here. The twist in the tale makes the anthology’s conclusion a moral tragedy. But it doesn’t lessen any of the fears–real or imagined.

Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film released quietly in the U.S. in 2016, is low-key, creepy, and tantalizingly  unresolved. Set in 1980’s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, writer-director Babak Anvari’s story of an evil djinn’s grip on a family works largely through the power of suggestion, with a few jump scares thrown in for effective variety.

Under the Shasow
Things fall apart

In Under the Shadow, the tension of life during war-time plays out in the domestic sphere. The film’s primary focus is the rocky relationship between Shideh, portrayed by Narges Rashidi, and her young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. The djinn, if it exists, uses the sharp edges of their personalities to drive them ever further apart.

Neither Shideh nor Dorsa is particularly likeable, but they are thoroughly believable. Shideh is an educated, Westernized woman whose world is slowly sliding back into the dark ages. Already struggling with her mother’s recent death, her inability to return to medical school, and her conflicts with her daughter, she is faced with her husband being sent to the war zone even as the war is approaching their doorstep.

Shideh tries to ignore the seriousness of her deteriorating situation. She clings to the modern privileges of her Jane Fonda workouts and a VCR. She clings to the idea that her home is still safe. She is dismissive of her husband’s concerns, and is frequently annoyed with her daughter. And Dorsa is frequently an annoying child, stubborn, suspicious, and obviously more fond of her father than her mother. With him gone, there is no-one to ease the strain between the mother and daughter.

The idea of evil spirits worms its way into Shideh’s thinking when her daughter’s mute playmate gives the girl a charm to protect her from djinn, evil spirits who travel on the wind and steal away what you love. The thought is reinforced by their landlady’s gossip, prejudices, and superstitions, although Shideh scoffs at such primitive beliefs.

The bomb

But then the strangeness begins, with an unexploded bomb crashing through the roof of their small apartment building and triggering the death of the elderly man living on the top floor. Dorsa becomes convinced that her missing doll–a gift from her father– is in the ruined apartment. She develops a lingering fever that defies treatment. As the other families abandon the building to escape the ever-more-frequent bombings, Shideh uses the excuse of her daughter’s illness to remain behind, alone. She and her daughter rapidly descend into the grip of what may be a genuine haunting or a terrible folie à deux.

Much of Under the Shadow’s power is derived from the absence of anything solid to fear. Anvari is frugal with his depictions of the djinn. The spirit is all flapping fabric and half-seen figures, a gaping mouth and a panicked child’s voice. The growing threat to Shideh and Dorsa seems to come from within, as their interactions become increasingly ugly under the pressure of Dorsa’s inexplicable illness and Shideh’s maternal failings. At one point the tension drives Dorsa to physically attack her mother in a scene I found far more wrenching than the scenes of supernatural malice.

Under the Shadow
Dorsa’s doll

In the end, Under the Shadow is an intimate ghost story that reflects the oppression of beliefs, politics, and culture as much as the oppression of the supernatural. Anvari leaves many of the questions he introduces open-ended. He allows the film to keep its loose ends even as he offers a familiar-looking conclusion that in lesser hands would scream of a sequel–because in life, as in art, inescapable uncertainty can be the scariest part.