“Astral” is a British thriller in the “Ouija” mode, young people creeped out by what they stumble into exploring the “other” world.
Shot quickly and on the cheap (12 days, limited locations), it plays like a prospectus for a bigger, perhaps better movie that could expand on this limited supernatural suspense story. If you see a Hollywood remake built around this low-key “sizzle reel” of a movie, don’t be surprised. .
But taken on its own terms it quietly, quickly and efficiently gets down to the simple business of raising the hair on the back of your neck.
Frank Dillane, of “Fear the Walking Dead” and a couple of Harry Potter pictures, is Alex Harmann, a college kid with brooding good looks and a personality to match.
He’s 21 and one of his classes at his stately British university touches on “astral projection,” the idea that you can give yourself an OBE — not an “Order of the British Empire” honor but an out of body experience.
Alex is interested. OK, obsessed.
“With increased awareness we can see into another world?”
He’s so taken with this “theory of astral projection” that he barely notices the comely coed Alyssa (Vanessa Grasse of “Leatherface”) who flirts with him almost non-stop. He wants to see if he can detach his spirit from his physical body. So he reads up on it.
But Professor Powell (Trevor White) was convincing, if skeptical. Alex hunts for instructions on the Internet. Naturally he finds them, and of course they work.
“I’ve perfected it. I’m a genuine projectionist!”
All he has to do is come up with “proof” for his doubting, not-easily-fooled friends.
That’s where “Astral,” which opens with a “Don’t try this at home” credit, draws us in. Computer recording Alex during his sleep with a proof-pendulum (an object dangling from a string) suggests the long-haired kid was wandering outside his physical body in his dorm room.
And proof or not, that “projection” made him start to see things — “shadow people.” What’s worse, his friends do, too. And I don’t know which is creepier, the ghostly glimpses in the movie, or the fact that “shadow person” warrants an entry in Wikipedia.
Dillane, son of top notch character actor Stephen Dillane, gives away the speed of this shoot only rarely. Oftentimes, rushed filming leads to rushed performances. Here, he gets caught underplaying the odd chilling moment when he needed another take to give us something to move us or shake us.
“I swear, I was outside of my body, looking down!”
Writer-director Chris Mul’s script has a tidy symmetry about it, a formulaic way of treating foreshadowing (the pre-credits prologue ends with a suicide) and only a few mild frights to it.
But less can be more in such movies, limiting the frights to a few key moments, lulling the viewer into complacency first. “Hmm, they’ve got video proof we can leave our bodies…Wait, what’s THAT in the corner?”
The best moment might be the rare funny one. Alyssa has finally decided to tell her feelings to Alex, who is so jumpy from what he’s been seeing that his eyes dart and he keeps turning his head, looking for shadows. Only his realization that now is the time I should lean in for a kiss keeps her from fleeing this long-haired wack-job.
British girls are made of sterner stuff.
Mul and his players keep a British drollery about everything that’s going on that’s cute and culture-clash funny. “Ghosts…the ONLY plausible explanation.”
It’s just that there’s so little here that the finale arrives abruptly and feels like it needed more buildup and oomph. We’ve seen “Ouija,” and that means you’ve got to give us more when you’re ready to confront the shadows stalking you.
“Astral” may have a refreshing quiet dread about it. But at some point, the stakes are raised and a big payoff is in order. The climax has to feel like something the movie preceding it has earned. Not here.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Frank Dillane, Vanessa Grasse, Catherine Steadman, Damson Idris, Trevor White
Credits:Directed by Chris Mul, script by Chris Mul, Michael Mul. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:22