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 its own. This third and best outing by young Brit filmmaking duo Genevieve Jolliffe and Chris Jones (“The Runner,” “White Angel”) could scare up limited business in selectedrelease in the hands of an inventive distrib.
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-its-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 its main character , with most of the background drama coming from the mother’s battles with disbelieving authority figures and her wary relationship 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 preem, 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 favor.
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.