SEAN, King of Scots, only able to return home from the Bahamas for a number of days each year, may well now be sending his son Jason to report back on the state of the nation. Connery junior
plays an initially callous, manipulative tabloid hack milking the story of Lizzie, a 12-year-old who pops pills while joyriding in a speeding car, only for her to survive while her chum dies. On
returning to her family, she begins to suffer from either survivor guilt or poltergeists. While her mother Kate struggles to keep a splintering family intact, the flat is invaded not only by
spooks but by parapsychologists, inept spiritualists, the police (who suspect Kate of child abuse) and a psychopathic loan shark.
Genevieve Jolliffe is an admirably ambitious first-time director (at 20 she entered the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s youngest feature film producer), fusing as she does kitchen sink realism with the supernatural. As effectively as she delineates the grubby, graphic detail of tower-block life, of poor folk being pounded by their circumstances, she also delivers big scares. The first she achieves through coaxing her cast to act naturalistically (Stephanie Buttle excels as the beleaguered but ever-gutsy Kate), the second through the dynamic but sensitive Heather Ann Foster, a native Glaswegian who loads Lizzie up with anger, resentment, guilt and stress, switching easily from big splashy moments to small telling ones. Blessed with the richest role in the film, Foster also points up the skinniness of most of the other characters and the incompetence of Andreas Wisniewski as a parapsychologist. A face familiar from The Living Daylights and Die Hard, he was perhaps so traumatised, not by poltergeists, but by high-rise squalor that he seems to be reading his lines off the cameraman’s forehead. Connery, for his part, oscillates off-puttingly from being powerfully low-key to self-consciously earnest. All suffer from choppy editing and a script which keeps hammering home the ambiguity ad nauseam, so wondering whether Lizzie is over-imaginative or not actually becomes rather dull. Still, applause please for a palpable sense of environment, a handful of freak-out moments and the extraordinary Ms Foster.
John Marriott **** Recommended
As Stephen King will tell you, tales of the supernatural often work best when rooted in a recognisable milieu, the more banal the better, and Urban Ghost Story plays like a kitchen sink Poltergeist. Set in a Glasgow tower block, it follows 12-year-old Lizzie (Heather Ann Foster) and her single mother, Kate (Stephanie Buttle), as their lives of social services, aggres-sive loan sharks and appalling plumbing are invaded by a force far more potent. Kate, like the audience, isn't sure if the moving furniture and ghastly sound effects are mani-festations of a genuine haunting or Lizzie's attempt, conscious or unconscious to punish herself for her part in a friend's recent death. But either way, she calls in a local reporter and a team of paranormal experts to investigate. Acted with conviction and wisely opting to keep the spooky events ambiguous, Urban Ghost Story is a low-key debut and all the better for it, with the confident direction marking out Genevieve Jolliffe as a talent to watch.
Twelve-year-old Heather Ann Foster lives in a grim Glasgow tower block with her single mother, Stephanie Buttle. Lizzie is already on the social services 'at risk' list, while Kate has to cope
with a violent loan shark, aggressive social services and general squalor. On top of this, the ghastly flat is blighted by poltergeist phenomena. Convinced they are haunted, Kate appeals to
reporter Jason Connery, who sees the story's potential but believes it's a hoax to get the family rehoused. This neat Brit-flick provides a strong contrast with films like The Exorcist, in which
visitations bother those too well-off to have other problems. Not only can the family not afford to leave their haunted flat, but they are forced to rely on the manipulative journalist and his
semi-cracked parapsychologist or spiritualist.
*** Kim Newman
Living Spirit Pictures’ third feature, URBAN GHOST STORY, bears such a title not only because it is set in a lower-class city high-rise. It is also an examination of what happens when ghosts
leave the world of Gothic mansions and misty cemeteries and permeate modern, everyday life. It is haunting not only because of its supernatural threat, but also for how the cynical, thoughtless
media will manipulate and exploit innocent people for the sake of a moneymaking story. It is an urban ghost story because, even in the midst of a poltergeist infestation, the realities of
day-to-day life seem to ring more horrific than anything. While URBAN doesn’t go for the jugular with its shocks, its quiet, thoughtful approach results in a constant wave of mounting realistic
After a drug-induced joyride-turned-horrific auto accident, 12-year-old Lizzie dies for over three minutes, before being revived and learning that her best friend Kevin has perished. Once settled back into her sparse Glasgow flat, accompanied by her mother Kate and younger brother Adam, Lizzie becomes subjected to unexplained happenings and soon comes to believe that a ghost has followed her back from the other side. What follows is like a setting reversal of THE CHANGELING. Replacing the remote mansion with a heavily populated inner-city apartment complex, the film still manages to retain a sense of inescapable isolation. The narrow halls and dark elevators help establish an atmosphere that is as depressing as it is claustrophobic.
Even as the ghostly happenings become more pronounced and intense, it is hard to ignore the real issues that permeate the story. Drug addiction, divorce, money struggles, single parenthood and teenage angst are themes that give the film a richness and emotional resonance not witnessed enough in the genre. Watching the quietly beautiful and dignified Kate trying to cope with her estrangement from her deadbeat husband, an aggressive loan shark, her daughter’s emotional problems and her own long-standing recovery from drug addiction almost makes the viewer forget that there is also a poltergeist roaming their apartment.
When no one will believe the family’s story, and with social workers breathing down the family’s neck, Kate decides to bring the story to seemingly endearing but rather sleazy tabloid journalist John Fox in a last-gasp attempt to get help. This is when the story becomes truly interesting. In an attempt to cash in on the story and then exploit the family as perpetrators of a hoax, Fox brings in an entire team of “specialists” to further sensationalize the case. Soon these people become more of an invasive and oppressive presence than the ghost itself, which takes a back seat for much of the second half of the film. It is difficult not to wince painfully when witnessing the slimy group of so-called experts prodding and antagonizing Lizzie for their own gain, inducing her to near madness by preying on her guilt over the death of her friend.
The sequences featuring this team are not completely without a sense of humor, though. The scene involving a medium attempting to channel the ghost is amusing for the sheer level of seriousness of those involved, all of whom believe that the ghost is simply a story fabricated by Lizzie, but are nonetheless playing along for sensationalism’s sake. Once it seems as if URBAN GHOST STORY cannot possibly become any more depressing or cynical, it presents a poignant climax that sees Lizzie finally coming full circle with her guilt, and finding the forgiveness she so desperately needs. The ghost itself becomes more of an afterthought—its identity and its desires are not important; rather, it is its function as a metaphor for Lizzie’s own demons that becomes its central position in the story. While some fans of visceral horror may be disappointed with the climax’s favoring of thoughtfulness and introspection over heart-pounding action, it is nonetheless a great way to complete the arc of the film. It is a touching but also uncompromising look into the lives of those not fortunate enough to be able to buy themselves out of a tough situation.
MTI’s DVD is a solid package. The 16x9 widescreen transfer looks very good, retaining a gorgeous bevy of greens that pour out of nearly every frame while still retaining enough grain to give the film an effectively grimy cast. The most interesting extra is an UNSOLVED MYSTERIES-style documentary about a real, documented poltergeist case in England. The evidence from the case, including plenty of photos and tapes of spectral voices, will give pause to anyone who feels skeptical concerning the existence of ghosts. It is a shocking and exciting look at the world of the paranormal that will thrill anyone interested in true hauntings. The two making-of documentaries are well-done, providing plenty of on-set footage and insight into the filmmaking process, which is very organized for such a low-budget feature. Although Genevieve Jolliffe made her directorial debut on URBAN, she exudes the professionalism of a veteran, yet she also has a giddy enthusiasm that is quite infectious. Hopefully this will be just the first in a line of interesting genre films for her. The deleted scenes are very well-put-together, with commentary from co-writer/producer Chris Jones. There is plenty here that would have added extra subtext to the film, so it’s nice to see that it hasn’t all been lost forever. The two audio commentaries, while informative, are really only for those folks who fall in love with the film (and hopefully there will be plenty). They can be a bit dry and clinical at times, so those not overwhelmed by the feature will likely not find any new appreciation for it through these narratives. Also, the two separate talks, featuring Jolliffe with cinematographer Jon Walker and Jones with editor Eddie Hamilton, could have been combined, since there is plenty of similar information divulged. Rounding out the features is a still gallery accompanied by a selection from the film’s haunting score.
It’s great to find a low-budget feature like URBAN GHOST STORY. Devoid of the budget of a Hollywood film, the filmmakers did not even consider doing a special FX freakout. Instead, the film focuses on characters and themes, but never becomes dull, as there is always a sense of dread lurking in the shadows of the rundown high-rise. It strikes just the right chord between horror and serious drama, and should be seriously considered by those looking for a genre film with a sense of thoughtfulness outside of “Who can we kill off next?”
Ken Loach meets “The Exorcist” in the Glasgow-set “Urban Ghost Story”, a dank, often creepy and decidedly gritty spin on a familiar genre that packs several shocks of it’s own. This third and
best outing by young Brit film making duo Genevieve Jolliffe and Chris Jones (“The Runner”, “White Angel”) could scare up limited business in selected release in the hands of an inventive
The pic is one of the few in the current British Renaissance to make a positive virtue of its shoestring budget rather than end up looking like a threadbare imitation of more heftily funded commercial fare. By setting the story of supernatural possession in a grungy Glasgow setting, and making social-realist drama part of the whole equation, genre enthusiasts Jolliffe and Jones have come up with a thoroughly of it’s kind movie that doesn’t require elaborate f/x (even if they’d had the coin).
Glaswegian Heather Ann Foster is perfect as Lizzie, a wan 12-year-old who almost died after being involved in a drug-induced car crash when joy-riding with her friend Kevin. Lizzie lives with her feisty mom, Kate (Stephanie Buttle), and younger sister and bro in a cheesy apartment building on the wrong side of town, deserted by their father and threatened by loan sharks. Lizzie starts seeing and hearing things, and the furniture starts moving of its own volition. The police and a bossy social worker (Siri O’Neal) are no help, so Mom approaches local journo John (Jason Connery) to publicize the family’s plight. Pretending to be sympathetic, John gives the story the full tab treatment, intending to reveal it as a hoax later on. But when some university parapsychologists move in on the situation and conduct scientific tests, everyone slowly becomes convinced Lizzie and her mother are not just con artists after a new government apartment.
Shot in cold and grubby-looking colors, with a distinct sickly-green tinge, the movie plunges the viewer right into the heart and head of it’s main character, with most of the background drama coming from the mother’s battles with disbelieving authority figures and her wary releationship with the cynical journalist. It’s a clever, often potent blend of British kitchen-sink drama with fantasy elements that gains added resonance by being set in gruff, rugged Glasgow, (At the Edinburgh fest prem, Jones rightly noted that the story would never have worked in middle-class England.)
In fact, apart from some establishing shots, the movie was actually shot in southeast England, with all interiors filmed at Ealing Film Studios. Sets by production designer Simon Pickup are a major contributor to atmosphere, convincingly evoking the family’s hand-me-down, lived-in apartment and the block’s menacing corridors with drunks slouched by the elevator. Rupert Gregson Williams’ ambient score is a further plus, and even the blowup from Super-16 works in the pic’s favour. The mix would hardly have worked without the well-tuned casting, with almond-eyed Foster exactly right as the taciturn Lizzie, Buttle a terrif screen presence as the tough and wiry mom, and Connery low-key but natural as the unshaven reporter. Andreas Wisniewski brings some humor to the role of a manic university researcher, and Nicola Stapleton looks straight off the streets as a teen druggie single mother.
Jolliffe, in the helming chair for the first time, with Jones this time producing, comes up with a smooth moving package that dips slightly in the middle and rushes its fences at the end but generally succeeds in its modest ambitions. Most interesting is the fact that the filmers are capable of delivering a far slicker package than that called for by the material: When a couple of more in-your-face sequences are briefly required in the last reel, Jolliffe and Jones show they can multiplex with the best of Blighty’s wannabes.
Urban Ghost Story starts promisingly. With the sound of an aria on the sound-track, a car flips onto its side and bursts into flames. We then cut to a black screen and complete silence, a
merci-ful calm punctuated by a pinpoint of light that offers the prospect of some kind of redemption. Then - bam! -Lizzie Fisher is forced back to life on the road of a wet, carnage-strewn street
in contemporary Glasgow.
The 12-year-old daughter of a single -parent family, Lizzie has been out joyriding with her friend, Kevin, who now lies in the morgue. Plagued by guilt, Lizzie climbs into her own interior world, spending hours in the bath-room with the sound of heavy metal crammed into her ears. Lizzie is not an atypical problem child, the product of a broken home, living with her 28-year-old mother, a mixed-race step-brother and the junkies who haunt the corridors of their graffiti-scarred high-rise.
Then, if these social blights were not enough, she and her brother Alex are visited by an unseen force that, at night, scratches the walls and pushes the furniture around. At first, Lizzie's mother accuses her of playing pranks, but soon even she realizes that they've got more than poverty and drugs to worry about...
The result of considerable research into the phenomenon of poltergeist activity, Urban Ghost Story is one of the most credible studies of spectral obsession ever committed to celluloid. With its urban milieu, naturalistic per-formances and poetically framed tab-leaux, it is both visually vivid and psychologically tenable. Newcomer Heather Ann Foster is excellent in the rather difficult role of the alienated Lizzie, but she is given sterling sup-port from Stephanie Buttle as her mother and Nicola Stapleton as her junkie friend Kerrie.
It is the film's social realism that makes its supernatural overtones all the more believable and thus so chilling. At times it's hard not to side with the cynicism of newspaper reporter John Fox (a grizzled Connery) or, indeed, the police. But as the circumstantial evidence builds and the imagination is left to play its own tricks, the film establishes a disturbing mise en scene that keeps one rooted to the possibility of an otherworldly evil presence. If Ken Loach had directed Poltergeist, it may well have turned out like this. And that's a good thing.
James Cameron-Wilson (****) Four Stars
After an ecstasy induced car accident, 12 year old Lizzie (Heather Ann Foster) lies dead on the roadside. She is slowly pulled "into the light" but forced back down to earth when she is revived
by doctors. Lizzie feels sure that during the 184 seconds she lay dead, something latched on to her and came back into her world.
The disturbances start, at first tapings, scratchings and bad smells pervade the home, but soon the activity escalates, forcing those around her to make a decision: is Lizzie pretending, or has she really been possessed? Enlisting the help of a cynical journalist (Jason Connery), Lizzie's mum, Kate (Stephanie Buttle) needs to protect her family from the evils of the real world and the realm of the spirit.
The title can tell you an awful lot about what this movie contains, but it fails to get across the powerfully disquieting nature of the supernatural spliced with the desperately earthbound. A setting of the worst of urban decay and social deprivation in Glasgow may not win much favor with the city's tourism industry, but it produces a sense where you can find horror in both the tale of possession and the story of a family in social crisis. From the outset, the family are beset by demons from all sides: the shadow of heroine addiction and drug abuse hangs over the lives of all who share the grim confines of the tower block: the Furies appear in the guise of a sub-human debt collector and his two lesser devils: and the specter of a life with no hope haunts the cityscape like a dark angel. When the "real" demons make their presence felt, they are already somewhat diminished by the pain the inhabitants of flat 13b have been through: the car accident that Lizzie was involved in killed her best friend, Kevin, and ripped the world of his parents apart forms the central stem of everything that flowers from it.
Although the spiritual possession thread drifts on and off throughout, it serves its purpose as an imaginative hook and delivers some genuinely chilling moments, but ultimately it is the freeing of Lizzie's own spirit and that of her family that provides the crucial exorcism.
As an actress, Heather Ann Foster is an astounding young talent who brings to mind her namesake, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, a child on the verge of premature womanhood brought about by her shocking journey through adolescence. The rest of the cast provide a solid wall of believability and help, in conjunction with the impressively grimy set, to mark this movie out as a force to be reckoned with.
Simon John Gerard ***** (5 stars)
If your grandmother is a medium, it seems logical that one day you'll make a film about a girl in a haunted block of flats. "I was used to coming down to breakfast and hearing all about the
ghosts that she met last night,' explains Genevieve Jolliffe, director of Urban Ghost Story.
Jolliffe and her film-making partner Chris Jones met at Bournemouth Film School 12 years ago. Disillusioned by the experience, and with bigger things in mind, they dropped out to form Living Spirit Pictures. Their first feature, The Runner, earned Jolliffe a place in the record books as Britain's youngest feature producer (at 20), and their second, White Angel, gained much critical attention. Now comes their third, which sees Jolliffe making her directing debut, with Jones pro-ducing. "I was so eager to get in there and get directing" she says. "I was a little nervous on Day One, but after that I was in my element". Jones is more pragmatic about his role: "Producing is like cleaning toilets - it's thankless, creatively dead and boring".
With finance in place, they set about building their story "Poltergeist had already done it brilliantly, so we didn't want to go down that route," says Jolliffe. Jones concurs: 'As soon as you see something, it ceases to be scary. Horror should be about being chilled, not grossed out". To research the film, Jones spent time with "scientists" whom he describes as "really interesting, but so far out there... "We're talking real X Files territory".
To create the tension without effects ("No bright lights and gateways to Hell"), sound and music were employed. "We spent weeks designing the sound," says Jones. "We wanted the building to be an organic character that almost breathes." With the movie in the can, the duo began doing the festival rounds, which Jones describes as "life-blood for an independent film". After that, however their sales agent went into liquidation and the film sank into legal limbo. Thankfully all that is now behind them, and Urban Ghost Story can finally be seen on screen in all its non-gory glory.
Self-styled gurus of the British independent scene, Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe have already published `The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook' and released a software package called `The
Producer's Toolkit'. With the belated release of their third feature (shot in 1997!), they've now also earned a degree of creative credibility to match their undoubted practical expertise, since
this poltergeist shocker is a cannily judged genre flick in which things that go bump in the night are solidly grounded in the everyday realities of a Glasgow high-rise.
The demise of an under-age driver in an Ecstasy-fuelled joyride proves an unlikely catalyst, for the victim's girlfriend and passenger (Heather Anne Foster) cheats death and returns home to mum (Stephanie Buttle), only for various unexplained bangs, scrapes and a blood-filled toilet to bedevil their council flat. With the authorities unsur-prisingly sceptical, they turn to a local tabloid journalist (Jason Connery) to document their story, yet the arrival of sundry spiritualists and a university research team still produces no answer. Disturbed after effects on a traumatised young mind, or something supernatural?
Without the resources to compete with Hollywood flash, director Jolliffe depends on the power of suggestion, compounded by a sense of believably ordinary individuals thrust into extraordinary circumstances. A background of drugs problems and teenage pregnancies conjures genuine sympathy for the urban disenfranchised (recalling ‘Candyman’ ), albeit perhaps at the expense of a certain slackening in the flabby mid section. What with Connery's bland male lead and a rushed, if admittedly impressive, action finale, there are certainly rough edges, but it's encouraging to see a low-budget British horror film aim rather higher than the cheapest of thrills. Foster, switching adeptly from innocence to embittered experience, makes a strong impression in the testing central role.
A ghost appears in a deprived Glasgow tower block, afflicted by drugs, violence and poverty. It's terrifying, and the ghost's a bit eerie, too. At the centre of this engaging tale is Lizzie
(Heather Ann Foster), a teenager who's had a near-death experience after a car accident which killed her boyfriend. Her already much put-upon mum (Stephanie Buttle) has the angst levels seriously
upped as a succession of poltergeist manifestations appear around her daughter. On top of a violent debt collector, a social worker keen to deprive her of her children, and an absent partner,
it's about all she needs. She calls for help, gets a shyster of a tabloid journalist (Jason Connery) on her case, and a crowd of clairvoyants and parapsychology boffins tramping through her gaff.
At least as much social commentary as ghost story, the film tells a good tale without pretension. There are some politically ambivalent right-wing moments, but it has much to say beyond this
about urban deprivation. Connery's belated conversion to a mejah whore with a heart of gold is a little implausible, but there are some strong performances, and some chills to savour.