Cast: Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman. Directed by: Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.
The brain sees what it wants to see reads the tagline, the film and all marketing regarding this British horror film. It’s a warning for those who think they’re in for one film that they might have been sold a different type of movie.
The film relies on a deficiency of information and to respect the wishes of the filmmakers we shall not reveal the twists, turns or surprises. The basic structure follows professor Philip Goodman as he investigates three stories of haunting, one a nightwatchman, one a student and one a businessman awaiting the birth of his first child.
Coming from the hit stage play by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, both of whom write the screenplay and direct here, there’s no shortage of old-fashioned scares. Dyson is one of the driving forces behind The League of Gentleman, one of the darkest, scariest comedies that the UK has ever produced, while Andy Nyman a character actor has worked on illusions for Derren Brown shows, as well as being best known for his antagonistic role in Charlie Brooker’s ‘Big Brother meets zombies’ thriller Dead Set.
The anthological format of three stories calls to mind the Treehouse of Horror episodes of the Simpsons, which probably is aided by the streak of jet black humour that goes through the dark heart. Along with writing and directing Nyman also plays Goodman, a Jewish non-believer who has spent a life debunking the supernatural – one of the many well-worn tropes the film both lovingly honours and smartly mocks.
As Nyman’s slightly bedraggled professor goes from story to story, we get glimpses of the horror movies he and bestie Dyson grew up on. The basic idea of a man coming face to face with something that might call his beliefs into question is very The Wicker Man, while the three stories call to mind works in horror as varied as The Haunting, Witchfinder General, The Devil Rides Out, The Innocents, The Changeling, An American Werewolf in London and oddly enough David Fincher’s The Game.
The performances are all great, Nyman plays Goodman with the right amount of guilt, regret and wide-eyed fear. Around him are three equally strong performances; Martin Freeman is great as the buttoned-up businessman who becomes less and less unflappable, while Alex Lather continues his quest to conquer the young, nervous untrustworthy guy role he did in Black Mirror and The End of the F***ing World. The biggest surprise is Paul Whitehouse as working class night watchman Terry. With him it’s not a case of “oh that comedian can do serious” it’s the way he looks at people and things, the way he moves, and scenes of dialogue that convey a lifetime in seconds. He’s the least showy of the roles, and therefore the hardest, but overall he thoroughly steals the film.
It also helps that the writing is more often than not great. There is a need for British grubbiness, which doesn’t entirely work in a film that tackles religion, faith and guilt so delicately, but even so (and a few cameos aside) there is more good writing than bad. Including the biggest belly laugh in the film where one character beckoned by an unseen creature screams “fuck that” and runs.
Not only this but the score by Haim Frank Ilfman is brilliant, mixing haunting musical cues with loud thunderous horror tracks it threatens at times to turn into the theme from The Omen but never goes for obvious stuff. It’s in the vein of classic horror scores, but isn’t mocking them, more reminding you that horror is about everything.
The camera work and editing are also top-notch, as each little segment has its own style. The haunted women’s asylum story looks as if it’s a Saturday night shocker the likes of which Hammer would have delighted in making in the 70s, large spaces with people in the foreground. Darkness everywhere except for little-illuminated things. While the woods story has a very clear visual reference to The Evil Dead and is steeped in 80s horror films. There’s also an element of the lesser Carpenter films and American Werewolf in the setting. The poltergeist style one is clearly riffing on 90s Fincher works, it’s as if it’s The Game with elements of Gone Girl in its style.
If there’s a criticism there’s an issue in that the three segments routine means that there’s little time for emotional investment. This is an issue as the film begins to try and pull the rug out from under you. It’s not a devastating issue, and the final third of the film doesn’t ruin what came before, but it feels uncertain and loses some of the campfire simplicity that the first two-thirds had built up so well.
Even so, Dyson and Nyman have created something that will be discovered over time and will grow in stature as so many great British made horror films do. It’s not a game changer, but what it is, is a fun uneasy ride, like a ghost train at a fair. Fun at the time, but unlikely to cause nightmares.