‘A Haunting of Today’:
Urban Ghost Story
UK, Geneviève Jolliffe & Chris Jones, 1998
by Paul Lewis
In Glasgow, twelve year old Lizzie Fisher (Heather Ann Foster) survives a devastating car crash that kills her young friend Kevin. Following a stay in hospital she returns to the tower block in which she lives with her mother, Kate (Stephanie Buttle), and toddler brother Alex.
Lizzie experiences strange phenomena at night – scratching sounds on the walls, at first, escalating to furniture moving across the floor. Lizzie struggles to convince Kate of her experiences, but when Kate encounters these increasingly aggressive supernatural occurrences herself, she becomes frightened for the safety of her children. Desperate for an explanation and finding the council unwilling to let her move to another flat, Kate contacts a reporter, John Fox (Jason Connery), who has recently written a story about UFOs for the local newspaper. Seeing the chance for a fantastic ongoing story for his newspaper, Fox involves a team of parapsychologists and neurologists, led by Quinn (Andreas Wisniewiski), from the university; with their high-tech equipment in tow, this team takes root in Kate’s flat. Fox also contacts a psychic, Pauline (Elizabeth Berrington), who claims that Lizzie’s near-death experience caused a negative entity to attach itself to her, and it is this that has been causing the haunting.
Meanwhile, Lizzie seems to be heading for a different type of disaster through her friendship with wastrel Kerrie (Nicola Stapleton), a teenage mother who introduces Lizzie to drugs and various criminal activities, including robbing a pharmacy. As the supernatural events escalate, and Lizzie’s life begins to spiral out of control in other ways, Lizzie finds herself wracked with constant guilt for her involvement in the crash that led to Kevin’s death.
‘NO MATTER HOW CONFIDENT YOU ARE IN YOUR STORY, YOU NEED TO SHOW IT TO PEOPLE TO TEST OUT WHETHER IT’S WORKING ON A PURELY MECHANICAL LEVEL’
Urban Ghost Story was made by the team of Geneviève Jolliffe and Chris Jones. In 1989 Jolliffe and Jones had founded the production company Living Spirit Pictures together, Jolliffe eventually entering the Guinness Book of Records as the then-youngest person to produce a feature film, The Runner (aka Survival Island), in 1992.
An action-thriller featuring Terence Ford, the brother of Harrison Ford, The Runner was directed by Jones, with Jolliffe producing. Though The Runner made money for its distributors, little of the picture’s meagre profits filtered back to Jolliffe and Jones; desperate to make some income from their venture, Jolliffe and Jones swiftly turned their attention to making another film together. The resulting picture, White Angel (aka Interview with a Serial Killer, 1994), was a serial killer film starring Peter Firth. In an effort to keep the production logistics to a minimum, the bulk of White Angel’s narrative took place in a single house.
On White Angel, Jones and Jolliffe shared the same credits as they had on The Runner: Jones acted as director, and Jolliffe produced the film. This was despite a prior agreement that they would swap roles on every subsequent film they made together, though was motivated by the fact that Jones already had experience of directing a feature film and it seemed logical to capitalise on that experience. White Angel cost approximately £10,000 to produce, but in publicity materials Jolliffe and Jones had claimed the film was made for closer to £1 million. (Disputes over the budget led to the pair being accused of money laundering and fraud.)
Following the release of White Angel, Jolliffe and Jones collaborated on the writing of The Guerrilla Film Makers’ Handbook (1996), a ‘do it yourself’-style tome focusing on the perils and pitfalls of low-budget film production, and in which Jolliffe and Jones laid bare the experiences of making their first two features. The Guerrilla Film Makers’ Handbook has subsequently been published in several revised editions, and has worked its way onto module reading lists for degree programmes in film production across the world: this is despite the numerous typos in the manuscript of the first edition, and possibly at least in part because the book came with a CD-ROM that contained a ridiculous array of highly useful documentation (contracts, clearance documentation, cue sheets, etc) for any buddying filmmaker. (It’s worth remembering that the first two editions of the book appeared when the Internet as we know it today was still in its infancy, and copies of such paperwork were therefore much more difficult to source: simply by buying a copy/ies of the book, an individual or institution had access to all the paperwork necessary for staging the production of a short or feature film, all on a convenient CD-ROM.)
Deciding to make another picture together, Jolliffe and Jones agreed to swap roles. Where their previous two feature films had attempted to ape Hollywood models, resulting in a mid-Atlantic tone not dissimilar to the confused accent of a radio DJ or trans-Atlantic pop starlet, the pair’s third feature, Urban Ghost Story, abandoned this. The result was a film that was much more localised: a ghost story, based heavily on the Enfield Poltergeist case, that was set in a Glaswegian tower block. That said, though the film was set in Glasgow (and convincingly so), for budgetary reasons the exteriors of the tower block were filmed in West London – guerrilla-style and without permits. The production deceived the local council, telling them they weren’t going to shoot on the streets but going ahead and doing this anyway. In fact, there are a number of ‘B-roll’ shots of the area around the tower blocks – featuring drunks sitting on benches, and so on, filmed with long lenses – that have a very authentic, cinema verité-like appearance, and one wonders whether or not these moments were ‘grabbed’ and unstaged. (They certainly feel like it.)
The film’s interiors were shot at Ealing Studios, and Jones has said that having Ealing Studios as a postal address gave the production kudos and helped to lever deals with financiers and distributors.[i] (The production of Urban Ghost Story also provided content for an additional chapter in the Third Edition of The Guerrilla Film Makers’ Handbook, which was published in 2006.)
Urban Ghost Story was produced for around £250,000, and was shot on Super 16mm. 35mm was apparently considered but Super 16mm was deemed more economical, particularly in light of the youth of the lead actress: Jones has said that ‘we didn’t know if she’d be a one take wonder or a take twenty six disaster,’ and the lesser costs of 16mm negative film meant that the production could afford to shoot more takes, if needed.[ii] (Nevertheless, by all accounts Heather Ann Foster proved herself to be a more than accomplished actress, despite her youth.) That said, shooting on Super 16mm meant that the production could gather more coverage for each scene, and Jones reasoned that audiences generally weren’t interested in whether a film was shot on 35mm, 16mm, or another format – as long as ‘the story and characters were engaging.’[iii]
There was a distinctive effort to make Urban Ghost Story look as ‘cinematic’ as possible, with the use of slow motion, long lenses, and fast cutting. Jones has cited Luc Besson’s slick 1994 picture Leon (aka The Professional) as a particular influence on the aesthetic of Urban Ghost Story.[iv] (In fact, there are some fast-paced montages in the film, edited along with deeply 90s techno-inspired music, that feel very similar to sequences in the likes of mid/late-90s pictures like Paul W S Anderson’s Shopping, 1994, and Justin Kerrigan’s Human Traffic, 1999.)
When prints were finally struck (and there is more on the film’s tumultuous distribution history later in this article), the film stock was also apparently put through a bleach bypass process at the lab, similar to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), with the result that 35mm blow-up prints featured prominently sharp tones in their contrast levels, particularly deep blacks, and a heavy grain structure. (The latter would have been even more pronounced, considering that the film was blown-up from Super 16mm to 35mm for cinema exhibition.) Given this, it’s a profound shame that the film’s theatrical exhibitions were so few and far between, and since then Urban Ghost Story has only been viewable via a long out of print DVD release (in 2001), and a screening on the BBC in 2009 – and none of these viewing options offer an experience that approximates the qualities that the bleach bypass process would produce. (In fact, both the DVD release of the BBC broadcast presentations look distinctly ‘flat’ in terms of tone, definition, and grain structure.)
The film was edited ‘on the fly’ by Eddie Hamilton, who had a background in corporate videos, and would subsequently go on to edit some big budget Hollywood films – including a number of Tom Cruise pictures (all of the Mission: Impossible films subsequent to 2008’s Rogue Nation, and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick), and several films with director Matthew Vaughn (the Kick-Ass movies, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsman: The Secret Service). Hamilton used an Avid that was installed close to the sound stage on which the interiors were filmed.[v] The result of editing the film whilst it was still in production, was that a cut of the film was assembled within a couple of days of production having wrapped.
Jolliffe was devastated by the initial rough cut, feeling that ‘It was a mess, full of holes and it just didn’t flow.’[vi] Some reshoots were quickly planned; during this period, an additional 50 or so shots were captured that didn’t feature any of the actors. These were mostly exterior shots, used as establishing shots or as transitions from one scene to another.[vii] The edit was revisited and reworked, and the film was screened for test audiences in a version that was absent the (rather stupendously explosive) car crash that is shown, in flashback, towards the end of the picture. The car crash, which filled in some of the film’s narrative ellipses, anchors the feelings of guilt that Lizzie feels for her role the death of her young friend, Kevin. This stunt sequence was shot and co-ordinated by stuntman/actor Terry Forrestal, who had worked on a number of James Bond films and, recent to the production of Urban Ghost Story, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).
Following the insertion of the car crash footage, the film was screened for another test audience, who were quite vocal in their criticism of the picture. The film was cut again, and several subplots and characters were removed or reduced in screen time. James Cosmo’s role as a minister, to whom Lizzie appeals for help, was reduced; as was Richard Syms’ role as George, the caretaker of the block of flats. Test audiences mistakenly believed that George was the loan shark to whom Kate was in debt, and the father of the enforcer (Billy Boyd) who threatens the life of Lizzie. Jolliffe and Jones were startled that the audience believed this to be so, and Jones later commented that ‘It was an important lesson to learn that no matter how confident you are in your story, you need to show it to people to test out whether it’s working on a purely mechanical level. Do they understand who is who and what relations they have and do they understand where they are being led by you the filmmaker?’[viii]
Jolliffe and Jones found that they argued in the cutting room over minute details of the edit – individual lines of dialogue, specific frames, and so on. Jones wanted to tighten the film as much as possible, whereas Jolliffe felt that there were nuances that were being lost as more material was excised.[ix] After another edit had been completed, it was screened for ‘industry people’ at Polygram, who said that the film was ‘too slow.’[x] In particular, the first half hour was deemed to be bogged down in exposition. A further 15 minutes were cut from the film, reducing its running time to a lean 86 minutes, and that was the final edit of the picture. Jones reflected in The Guerrilla Film Makers’ Handbook that the process of editing Urban Ghost Story ‘shows that with low budget films as you don’t have enough money to write the script and go through as many drafts as is needed, you end up being forced to shoot before you’re actually ready. The secret to making this work is to treat the editing as another screenplay revision and not be afraid to go back and re-shoot or invent entirely new characters, subplots, scenes, etc.’[xi]
‘LIKE THE EXORCIST IF BRIT SOCIAL REALIST DIRECTOR KEN LOACH HAD MADE IT’
The genesis of Urban Ghost Story was in Jones’ viewing of a television documentary about the 1977 Enfield poltergeist case, in which a London family, headed by single mother Peggy Hodson, claimed to have been the victims of a vicious haunting. Attracting significant press coverage and investigated by Maurice Grosse, the Enfield poltergeist case climaxed with the possession of one of Peggy’s daughters by an entity that identified itself as ‘Bill,’ claiming to be a previous tenant of the council house in which the Hodgsons lived. What struck Jones about the Enfield poltergeist case was that ‘it was very chilling, and it was very spooky, and not a lot happened.’[xii]
The mundanity of the location of the Enfield poltergeist case – a council house in London – stood in stark contrast with the traditional Gothic trappings of the English ghost story, and was a particular influence on Stephen Volk’s controversial teleplay Ghostwatch (BBC, 1992). In retrospect, the events of the Enfield case feel somewhat connected to the manner in which contemporaneous British supernatural fiction – such as the BBC Play for Today’s 1979 instalment ‘Vampires’ – was increasingly toying with the use of modern urban locations for their settings. (Another televisual precursor to Urban Ghost Story was, of course, David Hayman’s 1989 Play on One entry ‘Govan Ghost Story,’ with its similar Scottish tower block setting.)
Following the viewing of the documentary about the Enfield haunting, Jones and Jolliffe became fascinated with making ‘this ultra real version of a paranormal tale. We originally said it would be like The Exorcist if Brit social realist director Ken Loach had made it.’[xiii] Urban Ghost Story was about portraying ‘a very real haunting, and not an 18th Century haunting: a haunting of today.’[xiv] The tower block setting seemed right for this: the team wanted somewhere ‘oppressive and interesting’ as a backdrop.[xv] Glasgow was also chosen because the accents are ‘more lyrical,’ and Jolliffe felt the landscape was ‘dramatic, fresh and new.’[xvi]
As part of the research for the project, Jolliffe and Jones spoke with paranormal research groups, and aimed to capture the subtlety of the experiences relayed to them in these interviews: stories of waiting in a darkened rooms till the early morning, resulting in heightened senses quick to decode any sight or sound as evidence of paranormal activity.[xvii] Additionally, Jolliffe’s grandmother was a medium, something that shaped Jolliffe’s approach to the material. (Some of Jolliffe and Jones’ research notes for the project have been published on the Living Spirit Pictures website.) Jolliffe considered that ‘there hadn’t been a ghost story that really kind of looked at the reality of the situation for a very long time,’ suggesting that ‘For me, the realism of a ghost story is the most terrifying.’[xviii]
Writing the script took eighteen months, with Jones commenting that ‘It was a hard film to write because so much of it was just feel and not plot, it never was a film about a ghost being exorcised. The problem was always audience expectation of a ghost story. We knew the film wouldn’t deliver the shocks that a mainstream audience would expect and that it was too paranormal for your average art film fanatic. So we just said, to hell with it, we fall between two posts, but it’s a story we want to tell.’[xix]
Jolliffe and Jones envisioned Amanda Plummer as Kate, and David Thewlis as reporter John Fox. Though the pair managed to get the script into the hands of both actors, at a party at Cannes (where Jolliffe and Jones were trying to drum up interest in the project), Plummer and Thewliss ultimately turned Urban Ghost Story down. Aware of the difficulties of casting a film featuring such a young lead character, in Glasgow Jolliffe interviewed around a hundred young actresses for the part of Lizzie, ultimately settling on Foster; Foster’s father was a cameraman, and so her family had knowledge of the film business and filmmaking, which helped the experience of shooting the picture. (There were some issues, however, when Jolliffe and Jones realised that the summer holidays for Scottish schools finished earlier than English schools, which caused some havoc with the film’s production schedule.)
Because there was some dispute over deferred payments for actors (which Urban Ghost Story was made without), Equity and the PMA (Personal Managements Association, a London-based professional body for agents) insisted that the production adhere to Equity’s PACT low budget payment scheme for the actors in the picture. Various cast members were held to ransom by this agreement, and only released to perform in the film if the producers agreed to the demands set by Equity and the PMA. Ironically, Jones has said, this resulted in the film’s actors being paid 35% less in toto than they would have been if Equity had not become involved.[xx]
‘USED TO BE A NICE PLACE, THIS’
The tone of Urban Ghost Story is to a great extent defined by its locations. The film’s central location, the block of council flats, is complemented by the school Lizzie attends: a network of outdated and decrepit prefab units from the post-war years, its appearance in uniform with all the other mid-90s secondary comprehensives across the UK – at least those in corners of the nation largely neglected owing to class/region/whatever inequality one chooses to focus on. The spectre of poverty is everywhere, stitched into the texture of the film’s mise-en-scène. It’s in the interiors of the block of flats, where ugly graffiti is daubed on the walls, and in the exteriors too: a tin of white paint is splashed across the tarmac outside the entrance to the flats, and on the public benches nearby sit pissheads drinking out of cans. The texture of a poverty-ridden estate is articulated in a similar manner to the use of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing estate in British filmmaker Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) – which itself is adapted from the short story by Clive Barker (in The Books of Blood), set in a fictional council estate in Liverpool. In all of these cases, the oppressive poverty of the story-space, and lack of concern and intervention by the authorities, seems a core part of the texture of the supernatural forces that haunt it – almost as if the hauntings are conjured by society’s complacency towards poverty and the discontent it engenders.
The authorities are for the most part utterly unsympathetic. Early in the film, after Lizzie has recovered from her spell in hospital following the car crash, she faces a magistrate who warns her, ‘If your mother can’t control you, the courts will.’ As the payoff to this threat, throughout the story Kate’s family is visited by a social worker who repeatedly vows to issue an order to separate the children from their mother. When the haunting is first mentioned to the social worker, she vows that if the situation persists, she will take Lizzie to the hospital to be screened for drugs and alcohol – and both Lizzie and Alex will be removed from Kate’s care. As the haunting of the flat escalates, Kate approaches the council and requests to be moved to another flat, and she is met with utter resistance: ‘Unless you have a real problem, there’s nothing we can do,’ Kate is told by a clerk at the council offices. Even John Fox, the reporter, initially pursues the story only because he believes it will further his career. ‘I think we can get two, maybe three, good pieces on it before we expose it as a hoax,’ Fox tells his editor via telephone; in the same phone conversation, Fox also suggests that Kate has concocted the haunting in order to ‘jump the housing queue.’ (This is an accusation that was also levelled against Peggy Hodgson, in the Enfield poltergeist case.) The usual plight of those suffering supernatural phenomena in films (the struggle to find someone to believe and help them) is amplified by the antipathy that the film’s various figures of authority show towards Kate’s family.
Another powerful figure within the film is the loan shark – or more accurately, the loan shark’s son, who acts as his father’s enforcer. (The loan shark himself is unseen, and both he and his son are not named in the dialogue.) Played broadly by Billy Boyd, in a pre-Lord of the Rings role, this nameless character appears in the block of flats, his costume (a suit with a gaudy yellow tie) at odds with the environment. Challenged in stature, he is accompanied by much larger ‘heavies’ (Ken Whitfield and Eric McLennan). ‘Used to be a nice place, this – before the fucking junkies moved in,’ Boyd’s character announces whilst walking through the tower block’s hallways. In Kate’s flat, he picks up a photograph of Kate and Lizzie’s absent father. ‘His name’s Jeff, and he’s coming back,’ Kate asserts sharply. ‘They never come back,’ the loan shark’s son reminds her, ‘Gone… for good.’ And with this, he throws the framed photograph to the floor. Boyd’s character leaves the flat after taking Kate’s jewellery, including her wedding ring: ‘The fucker’s never coming back anyway,’ he spits at Kate, in reference to Jeff.
The loan shark’s son threatens Kate, demanding that she pay him the money she owes his father, and vowing to throw Lizzie from the balcony if she doesn’t do so. (Towards the end of the film, Lizzie calls his bluff by promising to throw herself from the balcony; this unsettles Boyd’s character, whose threats to commit murder are clearly empty and intended to rattle the nerves of Kate.) It’s notable that aside from Lizzie, who has been backed into a corner by the events of the narrative, the only character capable of standing up to the loan shark’s son is John Fox, who after experiencing a change of heart and coming to believe Lizzie’s story, begins to fall in love with Kate. Near the resolution of the film, John confronts Boyd’s character, who is clearly put on a back foot when someone refuses to be intimidated by him and his henchmen. However, John can do this only because he is invested with his own authority, purely by virtue of him being male and resolutely middle-class. (‘Hard work, is it,’ Fox spits at the loan shark’s enforcer, ‘picking on women and kids?’)
‘THEY HAVE TAE FIND YA A WEE FLAT’
The sense of entrapment that the film’s characters experience is articulated through a visual metaphor: both Lizzie and Kevin have goldfish in identical spherical bowls. Following Kevin’s death, his mother, who Lizzie visits, has kept Kevin’s pet goldfish. The fish swim around in their small bowls pathetically, their movements limited and their actions seemingly futile. (Midway through the narrative, we see a photograph of Lizzie and Kevin proudly holding the goldfish in water-filled plastic bags, presumably having won them at a fair.) At one point, Lizzie’s goldfish’s bowl falls violently from where it stands on a chest of drawers and smashes on the floor, the goldfish flapping about pathetically. Later in the film, Lizzie fills the bathtub with water and sits on its edge, letting her pet goldfish swim freely around her feet: it’s a moment that captures the freedom for which Lizzie herself yearns, and Jolliffe focuses on Lizzie’s face as she experiences this freedom vicariously through her pet.
Lizzie’s relationship with her old schoolmate Kerrie is less positive, however. A girl of a similar age to Lizzie, Kerrie has a young baby, Jack, and lives alone in a flat provided by the council. Kerrie suggests to Lizzie that she should try to get pregnant, so that she can have her own place: ‘Nobody to tell ye what to do, when to get up, when to go to bed. You wait till you’re 16, Lizzie. Get yourself pregnant. Tell the social you cannae live with your mam, and then they have tae find ya a wee flat.’ It’s clear that Kate disapproves of Lizzie’s friendship with Kerrie, and Kate warns Lizzie to stay away from her. However, Kerrie seems to offer a mirror to Kate, and the film suggests that this – and Kate’s fears that Lizzie will follow a similar path to her mother – motivates Kate’s dislike of Kerrie. Both Kate and Kerrie, the dialogue reveals, became pregnant at the age of 15, and split from the fathers of their children. When Kate and Kerrie become involved in a direct confrontation, Kerrie spits back at Lizzie’s mother: ‘I’m nae different to you. You and me, we’re the same.’
Nevertheless, where Kate’s relationship with her children is – although strained by the poverty the family experiences – predominantly nurturing and mostly positive, Kerrie treats baby Jack utterly neglectfully. When Kerrie urges Lizzie to rob the pharmacist at gunpoint (and thankfully, the gun is actually a toy), Kerrie is holding Jack. Kerrie also leaves the infant alone in the flat whilst she pops out to the shops, and later she and Kerrie drop tabs of ‘E’ whilst Jack is in Kerrie’s care. (The viewer may be reminded of the fate of Allison’s baby, Dawn, in Danny Boyle’s then-recent Trainspotting, 1996, with its similar milieu.) While the girls are tripping, Jack is left to self-soothe. As the film heads towards its climax, Kerrie overdoses and ends up in hospital, near death. There, social workers threaten to remove Jack; in the film’s final sequences, Lizzie visits Kerrie, who is in tears. Jack’s crib is empty. (We never learn whether Jack has been taken into care by the social workers, or if he has tragically died. Given Kerrie’s neglect of her child, the latter scenario seems a distinct possibility.)
The film opens with voiceover narration by Lizzie, over a scene that elliptically depicts the car crash in which Kevin was killed and her ensuant near-death experience. ‘That was the day I died,’ Lizzie narrates, ‘The psychiatrists all said that the light was a hallucination.’ We see Lizzie’s day-to-day existence in the dreary, dingy tower block. ‘None of that explains what’s happening,’ Lizzie adds in her voiceover, ‘what I brought back with me.’ The haunting soon manifests itself via the sound of scratching on the walls and partially-glimpsed shadows in the blackest depths of the flat, its effects initially (and most prominently) experienced by Lizzie herself – and with it, the notion that the entity is directly attached to Lizzie, and was ‘brought back’ by her from her brief time on the other side of the veil. As in the Enfield poltergeist case, Lizzie is initially blamed by her mother for maliciously causing the sounds – until the haunting becomes more and more aggressive.
Urban Ghost Story avoids the direct depiction of the supernatural, instead suggesting paranormal happenings in an utterly ambiguous manner. The ‘ramping up’ of the haunting is largely communicated through the use of sound, with the film placing emphasis on strange noises as indices of the supernatural, in a manner comparable to Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). An eerie wind seems to blow constantly through the tower block; there is scratching on the walls; at night, Lizzie and her family hear a mysterious groaning and sighing, and the near-constant sound of dripping water; and there is terrifying banging on the door to Kate’s family’s flat. In fact, in terms of its ambiguous representation of the supernatural through sound and shadow, Urban Ghost Story offers a strikingly similar bag of tricks to many of the J-Horror and K-Horror films that became popular a few years later, such as Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) and Danny and Oxide Pang’s The Eye (2002).
However, these sounds, which for Lizzie and her family seem to act as evidence of the supernatural, may just as well be indexical of the poverty of Kate’s family’s surroundings. The film offers rational explanations for some of these noises. John Fox realises that some of the sounds – the banging and rattling, the dripping water – may be connected to the water and heating pipes that run through the flats; and the team from the university discover a large electrical junction box beneath the floor of Lizzie’s room, which they suggest may be emitting high frequency noises and electromagnetic radiation – resulting in a sense of unease, and visual and auditory hallucinations. Most obviously, at a couple of points in the film the banging on the door of the flat is revealed to be Billy Boyd’s loan shark/enforcer, and in one instance the police – who force entry to the flat in order to ‘rescue’ Lizzie and her brother. When John Fox stays for the first night in Kate’s flat, he hears noises in the hallway outside; Kate pleads with him not to ‘let it in,’ but Fox opens the door to the flat and, hearing the noises continuing in the stairwell, reasons that the sounds have been caused by ‘Kids. Just kids.’
The methodology employed by the university team to investigate the haunting is very much ‘of the period,’ with the scientists using a confounding array of video monitors and then-seemingly high tech devices. Somewhat reminiscent of the conspiracy group The Lone Gunmen from the contemporaneous US television show The X-Files (1993-2002), this group is led by the intimidatingly tall Quinn, played by Andreas Wisniewski. (Wisniewski – whose most memorable role is perhaps as Hans Gruber’s henchman Tony in John McNaughton’s Die Hard – is 6’4”, and this apparently made it difficult to film some of his scenes in the studio.) When the researchers arrive at the flat, Quinn shows Kate a videotape recording of what he claims to be Russian experiments in psychokinesis. The scientists wire Lizzie up to monitors and video record her whilst she sleeps; the use of video monitors in these scenes has something of the texture of both Peter Sasdy’s teleplay The Stone Tape (1972) and Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch (1992). The high-tech equipment ultimately proves naught, however, other than that Lizzie’s sleep is broken and disturbed. Cutaways show flashbacks to the car crash and death of Kevin as the cause of her nightmares. Nevertheless, Quinn is permitted to make an observation that links the film to numerous other narratives featuring poltergeist activity: that in the case of the haunting of Kate’s flat, ‘We have all the hallmarks of a classical poltergeist: adolescent subject, female, recently traumatised, oppressive environment.’
The haunting is investigated from another angle, via a psychic, Mrs Ash (superbly played by Elizabeth Berrington). Ash conducts a séance, and concludes that the flat is being visited by three entities: a lost spirit, of a person who has ‘moved on’ (some people don’t know they’re dead and ‘just hang around,’ Ash informs the family); the spirit of a ‘mentally subnormal man,’ which is responsible for the various noises; and a more malicious, negative entity, a demon that has returned with Lizzie from her near-death experience. The séance culminates in a panicked Ash, who is in a trance, stating that this ‘demon’ is showing her ‘one of the levels of Hell.’ The séance is ended dramatically when Ash begins to make bloodcurdling screams. Though Urban Ghost Story neither fully confirms nor denies the supernatural occurrences, it seems clear that the ‘demon,’ or negative entity, that Ash claims has attached itself to Lizzie, is an expression of the ‘survivor’s guilt’ that Lizzie feels subsequent to the car crash which claimed the life of young Kevin. (Urban Ghost Story hammers this home in its final scenes, which reveal that though the blame for the crash was directed towards the deceased Kevin, Lizzie was in fact utterly responsible for it: contrary to the narrative that had been put forward, it was Lizzie that was driving the stolen car whilst tripping on tabs of ‘E.’)
In James Wan’s much later American horror film The Conjuring (2013), Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) give a lecture on demonology to a group of university students, during which Ed outlines three of the stages of demonic possession: infestation, oppression, and possession. In the context of The Conjuring, this is clearly an adaptation of the real-life Warrens’ own five stages of demonic activity, as outlined in their 1992 book In a Dark Place (based on the haunting in Connecticut which forms the basis for the narrative of The Conjuring). These are encroachment (where an entity tries to build a ‘doorway’ into a person’s life); infestation (the manifestation of supernatural phenomena in a person’s life/home/space); oppression (the ‘breaking down’ of the person’s mind and will); possession (the control of a person’s body); and death.[xxi] This division of demonic possession into key stages has long been a key part of the toolkit of Catholic demonologists and exorcists. Father Gabriele Amorth, who founded the International Association of Exorcists in 1990, similarly differentiated in his teachings between demonic infestation (the haunting of physical spaces); demonic obsession (the fascination with negative, violent, and destructive thoughts); demonic oppression (illnesses, or work-related/family/financial problems ascribed to being ‘cursed’); demonic subjugation (in which an individual wilfully submits to the Devil via the practice of Satanism, and so on); and demonic possession (whereby the body of the subject is ‘possessed’ by a negative entity). Catholic exorcists also differentiate between obsessio corporalis (bodily possession) and obsessio spiritualis (a ‘spiritual’ possession).[xxii]
Interestingly, Urban Ghost Story predates The Conjuring in outlining, in an explicit way, these stages of demonic possession. (Perhaps Urban Ghost Story is the first film to do this: whilst films about hauntings and demonic possession are ten-a-penny, very few of them outline the stages and processes of such events in such a direct, didactic manner.) In the scene in which Ash conducts her séance, the psychic is accompanied by her husband (Kenneth Bryans). Mr Ash addresses Kate’s family and John Fox, telling them, ‘Listen to me very carefully. There are four identified and documented stages of demonic manifestation. From what we’ve been told, I should suggest that you have already passed the first: infestation. Bangings, rappings, noises. We are currently in the second: oppression. The entity will try to force a rift in the family, create an atmosphere of mistrust and hate; intensify night terrors to increase the stress; possibly manifest itself in scratches or bites. The third stage lies ahead: possession. The entity will attempt to take over the host body.’ The fourth stage, Mr Ash warns, is ‘physical death.’ Nevertheless, despite the apparent sincerity of both Mr and Mrs Ash, and the incredibly dramatic nature of the séance itself – which ends with Mrs Ash’s bloodcurdling cries of terror, as she claims the demonic entity proffers her a glimpse of ‘one of the levels of Hell’ – Urban Ghost Story resists confirming (or outrightly denying) the Ash’s claims. (In the same way, the film avoids validating, or invalidating, the methods of Quinn’s team of scientific researchers.)
‘HOT NEW ATTRACTIVE FEMALE YOUNG DIRECTOR MAKES STARTLING DEBUT FILM’
Urban Ghost Story’s score was by Rupert Gregson-Williams, the brother of Harry Gregson-Williams. Harry Gregson-Williams had scored White Angel for Jones and Jolliffe, and was approached to score Urban Ghost Story; but by that point, he had been offered a much more lucrative role in Hollywood, composing the score for Jerry Bruckheimer’s Enemy of the State. However, Harry recommended his brother Rupert to the production, and Jones and Jolliffe felt that his work on the film avoided some of the stereotypes of British film soundtracks of the era (the use of what Jones has called ‘Brit pack band songs’) whilst also being sufficiently different from the types of orchestral music scores associated with Hollywood thrillers.[xxiii]
Showing Urban Ghost Story to prospective distributors, Jolliffe and Jones realised that the film ‘actually looked like one thing, i.e. a ghost story, but was actually another thing, i.e. a story about guilt and redemption.’[xxiv] Despite Jolliffe and Jones’ assertions that Urban Ghost Story ‘was a ghost story set in a social realist world and that was [its] unique position,’ the distributors for whom the film was initially screened passed on the project because they didn’t know how to market it owing to its conflation of the paradigms of the ghost story with the texture of the social realist drama.[xxv]
Stranger Than Fiction, who were already acting as the sales agents for Jones and Jolliffe’s previous film White Angel, expressed interest in Urban Ghost Story but insisted that a trailer be assembled which made ‘the film look like Die Hard with ghosts.’[xxvi] This was done, and the film was taken to Cannes, where three screenings were arranged in the hope of attracting international distributors. At Cannes, a ‘far eastern’ company bought Urban Ghost Story, with the intention of striking 15 prints for theatrical distribution. However, it became clear to Jones that the distributor’s agent hadn’t seen Urban Ghost Story, and the distributor eventually realised that Urban Ghost Story wasn’t the kind of horror film they were expecting, and ‘wasn’t even in English but in Scottish!’[xxvii] Later, the distributor would telephone Jones and tell him they were unable to open the film, actually asking if Jones wanted to buy back the 15 prints of Urban Ghost Story that they had struck.[xxviii]
The world premiere of Urban Ghost Story was held in Edinburgh, but Jolliffe and Jones quickly became alienated by the discussion of the film in the press: the roles of Living Spirit Pictures and Chris Jones were sidelined in favour of headlines which, in Jolliffe’s words, screamed ‘hot new attractive female young director makes startling debut film.’[xxix] What had been a deeply collaborative enterprise between Jolliffe and Jones was recontextualised through the press’ focus on the ‘novelty’ of horror film that had been directed by a young, female film director. Doors of opportunity opened for Jolliffe, whilst they closed in the face of Jones, and this led to some disagreement between the pair. Urban Ghost Story found screenings at a number of festivals, and was nominated at the 1998 British Independent Film Awards: Jolliffe was nominated for the Douglas Hickox Award (Best Directorial Debut), though lost to Shane Meadows (whose debut Twenty Four Seven came out the same year); and Jones was nominated for Best Achievement in Production, a category which was ultimately won by Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998).
Jolliffe and Jones had some issues with their sales agent, Stranger Than Fiction, who became uncontactable by telephone and seemed to underreport Urban Ghost Story’s sales – eventually owing Jolliffe and Jones approximately £30,000.[xxx] The film was sold for distribution in Germany and some other small territories. However, the lack of communication from Stranger Than Fiction led to the film being placed in distribution limbo. Nearly two years later, Jolliffe and Jones made contact with one of Stranger Than Fiction’s agents, who expressed remorse for how the pair had been treated by the sales agent, and helped to negotiate the return of the film to its producers. Jolliffe and Jones had no idea which territories Stranger Than Fiction had sold Urban Ghost Story to, however, and therefore were limited in the financial recompense they received from the project.
Eventually, Jolliffe and Jones managed to negotiate a deal with the California-based sales agent Vision Films, and around the same time a UK distribution deal was struck with Visual Entertainment. Visual Entertainment struck two prints, which would move around the UK following an opening in central London. This (delayed) release for the film came to a stick end, however: Visual Entertainment seemed uninterested in promoting the film’s cinema release, and a week after the first screenings Visual Entertainment told Jones that they wanted to rush Urban Ghost Story to the then-new DVD format. A DVD was released, with extra features including a ‘making of’ featurette and commentary track; but five days after the DVD’s release date, Visual Entertainment went bust, taking the film’s profits with them.[xxxi] In the US, the film was bought for distribution by the New York-based Panorama Entertainment. It seemed to Jolliffe and Jones that like the UK distributor, Panorama Entertainment were disinterested in promoting Urban Ghost Story, with the result that despite the fact that the film attracted positive reviews, it underperformed at the box office and pretty much disappeared. (Panorama blamed the fact that Urban Ghost Story was considered a ‘foreign film’ owing to the Scottish accents, and therefore had alienated exhibitors.[xxxii]) Eventually, a deal was struck to release the film on region 1 DVD through MTI Home Video.
WHY IT STOPPED
The problematic distribution history of Urban Ghost Story is a shame, as it has led to the film falling by the wayside. Sitting somewhere between full-blooded ghost story and mid-90s social realism, Urban Ghost Story is genuinely unsettling in places, and is clearly part of a lineage of British horror films (and teleplays) that includes the likes of Nigel Kneale’s work (particularly The Stone Tape), John Goldschmidt’s ‘Vampires,’ David Hayman’s ‘Govan Ghost Story,’ and Ghostwatch: all of these are stories that place the supernatural firmly within the context of modern Britain – on its council estates, in its prefab school buildings, its dilapidated Victorian cemeteries, and its Brutalist post-war high rise tower blocks.
At the heart of Urban Ghost Story is Kate’s family, and the film’s sympathies lie in its depiction of how the underprivileged are exploited by various agencies. The film ends with Kate, Lizzie, Alex, Fox, and the goldfish in its bowl, as they drive away from the tower block to a new life in another home. It’s a sunny warm day; everyone is smiling at the prospect of escaping from the dreary block of flats. Over this, Lizzie narrates, telling the audience that ‘No-one could ever explain what was in the flat. Why it was there; why it started; why it stopped.’ For those looking for the outrageous thrills of contemporary US horror films (James Wan’s Enfield poltergeist-inspired The Conjuring 2, released in 2016, offers a stark point of comparison with Jolliffe and Jones’ picture), Urban Ghost Story’s commitment to maintaining ambiguity in its depiction of supernatural phenomena may be viewed as frustrating. Nevertheless, the ambiguous way in which Urban Ghost Story tells its ‘urban ghost story’ allies the film with examples of literary supernatural fiction such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). There are some missteps along the way: some of the montages, underscored by techno-style music, feel very stereotypically ‘mid/late 90s’ and haven’t aged well; and whilst it doesn’t outstay its welcome, the final edit of the film seems shorn of material that would have fleshed out some of its themes. But the core of the story is just as relevant today.
Urban Ghost Story received a screening on the BBC in 2009 (following the broadcast of the Jonathan Ross-presented Film 2009) which was viewed by just under half a million viewers. Chris Jones wrote enthusiastically about this screening on his blog. Since then, sadly, the film seems to have fallen into obscurity once again. Once can live in hope that Jolliffe and Jones’ film finds a resurrection on a high-def home video format, with a presentation that showcases the characteristics of the original bleach bypass process, and contains some of the footage eliminated from the final cut.
i See Jones, Chris & Jolliffe, Geneviève, The Guerrilla Film Makers’ Handbook. London: Continuum, 2006 (3rd Edition), P.597
ii Jones & Jolliffe, P.604
iii Ibid., P.604
iv Ibid., P.603
v Ibid., P.605
vi Ibid., P.605
vii Ibid., P.606
viii Ibid., P.607
ix Ibid., P.607
x Ibid., P.607
xi Ibid., P.608
xii Jones, in the ‘Making Of’ featurette on Urban Ghost Story’s DVD release
xiii Jones & Jolliffe, P.595
xiv Jones, in the ‘Making Of’ featurette on Urban Ghost Story’s DVD release
xv Jones & Jolliffe, P.596
xvi Ibid., P.597
xvii See the ‘Making Of’ featurette on Urban Ghost Story’s DVD release
xviii Jolliffe, in the ‘Making Of’ featurette on Urban Ghost Story’s DVD release
xix Jones & Jolliffe, P.596
xx Ibid., P.599
xxi See Warren, Ed & Warren, Lorraine, In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting, Villard Books, 1992
xxii See McCulley, Darrell Arthur, The House Swept Clean: a biblically balanced pattern for the diagnosis, exorcism, and pastoral care of the victims of demonic possession, Concordia Seminary – Saint Louis, 2002
xxiii Jones & Jolliffe, P.611-2
xxiv Ibid., P.612
xxv Ibid., P.612
xxvi Ibid., P.612
xxvii Ibid., P.613
xxviii Ibid., P.614
xxix Ibid., P.614
xxx Ibid., P.617
xxxi Ibid., P.619
xxxii Ibid., P.620