Professor Phillip Goodman has made a living debunking paranormal phenomena. One day he receives a letter from his hero, fellow debunker Charles Cameron, inviting him to try and figure out three cases of the supernatural. However, not all is as it seems.
Written by the magician Andy Nyman and the hidden League of Gentlemen, Jeremy Dyson, and based on their smash hit West End play, Ghost Stories is a fascinating beast. This anthology horror plays with the horror genre, reality and the nature of the film to keep you always on your toes, though that should be no surprise seeing as Nyman frequently collaborates with mindbending mentalist Derren Brown. It holds long shots of empty rooms with loads of space around the characters, playing with focus to trick audiences into scaring themselves. I found myself looking for things moving through the frame, shapes, shadows and other things that shouldn’t be there. “The brain sees what it wants to see” says the tagline and that is certainly the case. Ghost Stories excels at the atmosphere of terror and immediately sets you on edge as you catch little glimpses of things that don’t look quite right in a Britain that is slowly crumbling around our characters; it is a land of isolated country roads, inhospitable moors and abandoned buildings.
It is similar to It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) in the way the cinematography allows audiences to scare themselves without the constant building of strings leading to an obvious and silly looking jump scare. Everything in Ghost Stories is half-glimpsed, blurred and shapeless. There is a great moment in the first segment when Paul Whitehouse’s night-watchman, Tony Matthews, sees what at first appears to be a ghost and for a moment does act like one, but it was only a collection of items that appeared to be sinister in the half-light and glare of a torch.
These scares are sold by fantastic performances from Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Nyman himself and, my personal favourite, Alex Lawther, who is best known for his role as Kenny in the Black Mirror “Episode Shut Up and Dance”. It is their terror and their stories that draw us in and then, when they have us hooked, they drop the true horror.
However, the film is not just about constant scares due to the original creators being comedians as well as writers, magicians and horror enthusiasts. There is an element of humour to disarm the truly scary moments. The most talked about of which is during the second story with Alex Lawther’s, creepy and unhinged Simon Rifkind being commanded to stay in his car on a back country road by a voice that he assumes is coming from a daemon. “Fuck That!” he screams as he flees the vehicle in a scene that is not only funny but a true reaction that anyone else would have in that situation.
Ghost Stories, unfortunately, is not perfect; the countless red herrings leave the film feeling a little messy like an old unravelling jumper. We have references to Philip’s family, to crimes he may or may not have committed. And the final reveal, while certainly interesting, does somewhat ruin the notion of the horror and compromise the end of what up until then had been an atmospheric creepfest. Elements introduced in the opening and the stories, turn up in this ending but it is not fully explained, I suppose that it is exploring something else, but in terms of cohesion and consistency, it is a little weak. Whether a second will reveal all the mysteries or whether the writers were trying to be too clever we will have to see.
Similarly, the final payoffs within the smaller stories lack the punch that the atmosphere promises, perhaps falling prey to a common horror problem of being unable to stick the landing. The build-up in Chapter 1 is the perfect example, perfectly pitched in every way the buildup cleverly uses the dark, light and sound to create an intense atmosphere, but when the ghost is finally revealed it is not scary. This is the same with Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. There are moments in between the stories that keep the tension high, but as we slowly descend to our conclusion, the scares are fewer and farther between. Maybe this is the fault of the adaptation from stage to screen, as stage performances feel more immediate, more visceral and tactile, while film is static and separate.
Regardless my interest is peaked and I will try to hunt down performances of the stage play if I have the courage or money to do so. For all its faults though Ghost Stories has enough character, thanks to the captivating performances and chilling atmosphere to keep you watching, even if it is through your fingers.
You can watch Ghost Stories in cinemas now