"Ken Loach meets The Exorcist" is how Variety magazine greeted this 1998 feature from Genevieve Jolliffe. It's a worthwhile summing-up, as URBAN GHOST STORY is a throwback to those great British 'Kitchen Sink'dramas, with a dose of the supernatural combining to make this one of the most effective British dramas of the 90's.
When 12 year old Lizzie (Heather Ann Foster) is thrown through a car windscreen during an ecstasy-induced car crash, death takes her down a long dark tunnel towards a blinding light. Doctors manage to revive her after 184 seconds but did something/someone follow her back to the land of the living? After a series of disconcerting events, her single-parent mother - Kate,played by Stephanie Buttle - strongly suspects supernatural forces are present in their tower block flat, but finds her appeals to be re-housed are falling on deaf ears. In a desperate bid to enlist sympathetic help, she contacts the local press, resulting in an investigation by a journalist (Jason Connery) who swiftly decides her claims to be nothing more than an attempt to jump the housing queue. While mediums, paranormal investigators and devout Christians invade the flat to carry out their own investigations, Kate and her family must battle through a succession of decidedly earthbound obstacles, with the scent of psychic phenomena hanging heavy in the air. URBAN GHOST STORY is as much about the living as the dead, centering on many socially-driven repercussions that confront families who find themselves on the bottom of the pile: violent debt collectors; a family member destroying herself on drugs; the struggle to free oneself from squalid living conditions and authorities who are unwilling and, often, unable to offer a way out.
On the 10th anniversary of this film's release, things are even worse with our fucked-up society bereft of hope for the disenfranchised as the numbers of folks living in poverty climb ever higher. Jolliffe's film succeeds in capturing this depressing yet profoundly moving environment, while also delivering an understated, chilling excursion into the paranormal world where money and perceived status often overshadow those who genuinely place the frightened victim(s) at the top of their own unhidden agenda.
Inspired by the famous case of 'The Enfield Poltergeist', URBAN GHOST STORY never resorts to the bombastic assaults employed by many less successful spookers, instead opting to deliver less sensationalist methods of chilling the blood. In this instance, less is most definitely more, with a series of economically chilling sequences suggesting Lizzie's state of mind may not be creating these strange instances of unexplained noises, furniture movement and flying optics. Kudos to Jolliffe and producer Chris Jones for making such a full-bodied drama on a low budget, and also to a fine cast who do full justice to the literate screenplay. Amazingly, the most memorable performance comes from 13 year old Heather Ann Foster who belies her tender years with a mature turn as the frightened girl consumed with guilt over the death of her friend. With her tormented visage - contrasted at times by great serenity- fearful glances and accomplished script delivery, Foster goes through the whole gamut of emotions, and it's both surprising and sad that that neither she nor her director have really broken through during the 10 years since this film was released. I was lucky enough to catch URBAN GHOST STORY opening weekend at the Metro cinema in London's Rupert Street, snapped up the DVD when it came out, and remain mystified that it has yet to receive the recognition it deserves from the public at large.
The DVD contains separate commentary tracks from Jolliffe and Jones; a making-of documentary and a featurette titled 'The Real Urban Ghost Story' which looks back at the Enfield Poltergeist case. The haunting soundtrack can be found as an isolated score, and there are several deleted scenes with commentary explaining why they were left out. Although these omissions are not presented in a 'finished' state, they are worthy of inclusion here, and it would be an interesting exercise to debate the pros and cons regarding their exclusion.
Some 10 years on, URBAN GHOST STORY remains a powerful viewing experience, and it would be nice to think its value will be recognised in the fullness of time.