Urban Ghost Story is the third collaboration between Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe of Living Spirit Pictures, their previous two feature films being The Runner and White Angel. Jones and Jolliffe were inspired by documentary accounts of poltergeist manifestations, in particular The Enfield Poltergeist Case. Anyone who has read about the case or seen the photographs taken at the scene will note the obvious influence on the events and imagery portrayed in the film. The Enfield Poltergeist came to the attention of the Daily Mirror in 1977, resulting in them requesting help from The Society for Psychical Research, who duly investigated the phenomena. Although there is no verifiable scientific evidence for the existence of poltergeists, it is a widely reported phenomenon. A popular theory being that manifestations occur around adolescent girls at the time of puberty, who may also have had a recent traumatic experience, the idea being that the apparent physical phenomena is some kind of externalised energy disturbance emanating from the girl. The pros and cons of this unproven theory reverberate through the film informing the actions of both sceptics and believers.
The central character is Lizzie Fisher, a twelve year old girl, played by Heather Ann Foster, who performs really well in her first lead role. Lizzie lives with her mother Kate, played by Stephanie Buttle, and younger brother Alex, played by Alan Owen, in a dilapidated high rise flat on a rundown Glasgow estate, sharing their living spaces with junkies and street drinkers. Stephanie Buttle provides a strong central character in the Fisher household, displaying an initial vulnerability, which is supplanted by a growing personal strength as the story progresses. The film begins with a car crash. Lizzie has been joyriding with her friend Kevin after taking ecstasy. At the scene Lizzie dies for several minutes and has a textbook near death experience, being pulled back from the brink by paramedics who resuscitate her. After recovering in hospital she returns home and soon strange things start to happen. She hears scratching on the walls and the furniture in her room appears to move by itself, though this is never clearly witnessed. The film maker’s decision to not display overt representations of paranormal phenomena assists the development of one of the films central themes. Is the escalating phenomena which plagues the family supernatural or can it be explained in other and more rational terms? As the film progresses an array of experts and officials subject the family to their widely varying and often contradictory interpretations. This expression of subtle uncertainty has a stable tradition in literary horror, such as in the stories of M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu. Both writers often hinted at ghostly happenings, but as well as suggesting the supernatural they also posited possible psychological or logical explanations.
Urban Ghost Story, which premiered in 1998, is a Gothic Horror film set in a contemporary landscape, in this instance a bleak, decaying Glasgow housing estate was used for the location shots, with the internal sets being constructed at Ealing Film Studios. Simon Pickup, the film’s Production Designer, in conjunction with Chris and Genevieve, opted for a dominant pale green colour for the sets. The result is a cold unsettling landscape, composed of muted understated tones that offer little comfort to its inhabitants or the viewer. In 1764 Horace Walpole, who lived at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, published The Castle of Otranto initiating the revival of the gothic in literature. Elements of traditional Gothic stories normally involve a dark and mysterious castle in a strange land, where a helpless woman is kept prisoner and subjected to horrifying ordeals by a dark villain or evil entity. She is then rescued by a male hero who marries her and protects her. Urban Ghost Story successfully recreates the Gothic milieu in a contemporary setting, with an early scene of the monumental and foreboding tower block convincingly replacing the traditional castle as the apparent site of entrapment and despair for vulnerable females. In a homage to the genre we see in an early shot of the corridor outside their flat that the Fisher family reside at Flat 13b, there is also an in-house joke where Lizzie’s little brother is seen lying on the sofa reading a children’s book bearing the title Haunted House. Although Lizzie and her mother initially appear to be helpless maidens, in due course they turn the tables on the forces that seek to control or exploit them. These appear not as unbelievable monsters or haunting spectres but as a range of people who either take advantage of them or misunderstand them, manifesting in the shape of a local reporter, a group of paranormal investigators, two overtly religious mediums and a well meaning but ill informed social worker. There is one traditional villain though; a seedy loan shark played by Billy Boyd who appears twice at the families flat with two heavies, intimidating the family and inflicting physical violence on Kate, the mother. It may be true that certain middle class prejudices concerning urban deprivation are represented in the film by stereotypes such a single mothers having babies to get housed by the council, but this is not a hopelessly bleak portrayal of a suffering underclass. It is a story of people who find themselves in a difficult position, who are hindered more than helped by the powers that be, and who eventually become their own centre of initiative, constructing their own salvation.
Lizzie’s mother initially disbelieves her daughter, believing that she is playing tricks to get attention. When the disturbances in the flat escalate Kate becomes perplexed and frightened by the strange phenomena and she contacts John Fox a local reporter at the Glasgow Post. Fox is played by Jason Connery, who brings a strong central stability to the film. Initially he exploits the situation to create a story, making Lizzie something of a figure of ridicule at her school and exposing her mother as an example of social dysfunction, blazing the sensational headline,
‘MY LIVING HELL IN HAUNTED TOWER’
across the front page of his newspaper. Fox also brings in a group of paranormal investigators, who come complete with an array of equipment to detect paranormal phenomena. They also have an exploitative agenda, with their leader, parapsychologist Dr Quinn, played by Andreas Wisniewski, later admitting that the data they are collecting is for a paper he is writing. Lizzie is constantly monitored by the group, having electrodes attached to her head to monitor her sleeping patterns, all of which is recorded on video. The monitoring of Lizzie is reminiscent of the monitoring of Regan by Doctors in The Exorcist another film that places gothic horror in a contemporary setting. There is also a scene in which Lizzie gets her first period and her mother washes her in the bath, recalling the scene in The Exorcist where Regan urinates on the floor at her mother’s party and is cleaned in the bath by her mother. The musical score created by Rupert Gregson-Williams has an appropriate simplicity that adds a great deal to the dramatic impact of various scenes, effectively employing a range of styles from classical opera, minimalist haunting melodies and driving hardcore dance rhythms. Part of the score is a recurring piano melody, highly reminiscent of the opening theme of The Exorcist which reminds us that we are involved in a slice of Urban Gothic which is giving homage to a classic film, the music being both strangely compelling and unsettling.
Urban Ghost Story was actually described in one review as a cross between Ken Loach and The Exorcist. To a certain extent this is true, but with regard to the Loach reference this is not a depressing, nihilistic story of an underclass mired in spiralling despair, but an intelligently crafted progression of creative responses, albeit via a journey of catharsis that succeeds against the odds. Also unlike The Exorcist, the film does not attempt to overtly display theatrical representations of demonic possession, rather it understates the possible poltergeist manifestation, leaving open the question of whether or not the disturbances have a supernatural origin or are some kind of psychological manifestation. The abundance of post traumatic stress disorder flashbacks that erupt in Lizzie and return her to vivid memories of the car crash, serve to suggest that a psychological explanation for her experiences may well be a valid conclusion, the film is clever in this sense as it leaves everything open for the viewer to draw their own conclusions, reminiscent, as stated earlier, of the unsettling power of ambiguity in the ghost stories of James and Le Fanu..
John Fox the reporter next introduces two overtly religious mediums who propose to hold a séance in the flat to discern and deal with the three entities which Mrs Ash played by Elizabeth Berrington, claims are infesting the home. During the séance Mrs Ash tells Lizzie that one of the entities is a demon and that it intends to possess her and take her to hell. Mrs Ash, apparently having a mediumistic vision then cries out,
“You’re in hell, you’re damned Lizzie.”
Kate is appalled by the ordeal the strange pair are inflicting on her daughter and taking back control calls a halt to the proceedings. As the mediums leave the reporter gives them a cheque for one hundred pounds. This is another example of people outside of the family using the situation to promote their own agendas. John Fox also uses photographs of the séance to create another sensational expose for his newspaper, even doctoring some of the pictures on his computer to make them look more supernatural. This is when the family fall out with the reporter and he leaves the flat. Jason Connery’s character, though initially exploitative and dismissive of the family, later redeems himself by returning to help the family, even developing a credible love interest with Kate. He is not quite the all powerful macho gothic hero, rescuing damsels in distress, but he does give additional help to the family in their struggle.
Following the séance and its talk of demons and damnation, Lizzie develops a morbid and obsessive interest in the darker aspects of the occult and images of demons and hell. Her situation is not helped by a visit from her social worker played by Siri Neal who places her back on the at risk register. The social worker is very articulate and well armed with the tools of her trade. She demonstrates her superior understanding of the situation by vociferously criticising Kate in front of her children and being completely dismissive of the strange experiences that the family are going through. In one scene the police and social worker are called to the flat when Lizzie’s friend Kerrie, convincingly played by Nicola Stapleton, has an adverse reaction to a recreational drug she ingests. When the social worker hears about the alleged haunting, her professional, though blinkered response is to suggest that Lizzie goes to hospital for a drugs and alcohol screen, there is no openness to the possibility that Lizzie is having an experience that may be valid and which needs understanding. At another point in the film the social worker says to Kate,
“I’m required by law to care for her, she’s already on the at risk register.”
Kate’s accusing reply,
“At risk from who?”
sums up the fact that all the various experts fail to provide either help or understanding for Lizzie and highlights that each of them are following self regarding agendas which may be doing more damage than good. We even see the social workers male colleague thumbing through the video collection on a shelf in the flat, no doubt looking for unhealthy influences from unsuitable films. Finally the social worker initiates a child protection procedure for Lizzie and her brother. Her ill informed response and the police’s subsequent violent assault on the flat provoke a reaction that almost results in another child’s death. There is a resolution though and the person who achieves it is not the traditional male hero who saves the hapless maiden. The so called experts called in to help; the paranormal investigators, the mediums and the social worker are in a sense all replacements for the traditional gothic monster or ghost, each of them managing to disempower Lizzie and Kate, to imprison them in the rigid castles of their own agendas. Their efforts though are grossly ill informed and are more about them exercising their own power, with Lizzie, Kate and her brother being the victims they feed upon, making them something akin to modern day vampires, gaining their significance through their control and exploitation of the family.
In the final moments of the film Lizzie, experiences a revelatory post traumatic stress flashback of the accident in which her friend died, that resolves many of the conflicts in the story. There is a distinct change in her demeanour; she appears settled and contented, wears softer clothes, even the colour palette of the film become warmer and comforting. A resolution occurs for all of the family. In a sense this is a coming of age story where the central character becomes her own centre of initiative and where people themselves resolve their conflicts. It’s also a positive and gentle feminist film in which several disadvantaged females realise their own power and that they are not going to be rescued by an all powerful demon busting action hero. Ultimately this a feel good movie in the Gothic genre that avoids the usual gender clichés, it’s also a social commentary detailing that people need to be motivated to help themselves rather than be dictated to by experts, be they self appointed or state sanctioned.