Ghost Stories (2017) (98 minutes)
Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.
Written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.
Starring Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse.
It’s a while since we’ve seen a cinematic anthology of horror tales, but Ghost Stories revives that tradition with a trio of supernatural stories in the style of English portmanteau movies of the 1960s and the Ealing classic Dead of Night.
The film’s writer-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson have adapted Ghost Stories from their successful stage show. (Nyman is an actor, writer and magician who has devised productions for Derren Brown; Jeremy Dyson is actor, writer and co-creator of The League of Gentlemen). Their film offers a tribute to an array of old-school horror tropes.
In the encompassing story, Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, an atheist, rationalist lecturer and TV celebrity who exposes paranormal hoaxes and frauds. Goodman’s mistrust of the ‘spiritual’ derives from an unhappy childhood with a fanatically religious father – uncompromising, strict, and unforgiving of any unorthodox behaviour from Philip and his older sister.
Philip himself grew up hero-worshipping a 1970s TV personality, Charles Cameron, who was likewise a debunker of the ‘paranormal’, but who disappeared at the height of his fame and was assumed to be dead.
Philip is astonished when, out of the blue, he receives a communication from his supposedly dead hero, which informs him that his disappearance was simply the result of a personal crisis. They arrange a meeting in the dilapidated caravan in which the man now lives.
Rather than congratulating Philip on continuing his work, Cameron insists that he reopen the file on three of his cases that would not submit to rational explanation. Philip grudgingly agrees to investigate and uncover the prosaic truth.
In the first case, Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a sour night-watchman with a tragic family history, is plagued by terrifying visions while guarding a deserted and semi-derelict building once used as an asylum.
Philip arranges to interview him in a gloomy and deserted pub. Tony is prickly, defensive and often on the verge of hostility. He sees Philip as a presumptuous academic who wants to dredge up distressing aspects of the past for a sensationalist TV show.
In the second story, Simon Rifkind (an impressive turn from the talented young Alex Lawther) is a jittery young student with a dysfunctional home-life. Whilst illegally driving home one night on a foggy, woodland road, he is involved in a surreal, nightmarish hit-and-run accident.
Since then he seems to be living in self-inflicted imprisonment in a state of near-nervous breakdown, in a house full of unsettling phenomena. When asked in, Philip gets a glimpse of the back of Simon’s parents, standing stiffly inert at the kitchen sink, in front of a uselessly running tap. When upstairs in the boy’s bedroom, someone raps loudly on the door, Simon answers, yet adamantly maintains they are alone in the house.
The third story concerns a wealthy ex-banker called Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), whose ultra-modern house on his country estate is bedevilled by a poltergeist, just as his heavily pregnant wife enters the final stage of a difficult labour and traumatically gives birth.
Freeman’s Mike is a stereotypical rich, city-boy snob, whose casual anti-Semitism leads Philip to flashback to his schooldays, reviving the memory of a harrowing event which he has tried hard to forget.
Philip himself begins to fear that perhaps all these ‘ghost’ stories have a collective significance pertaining to him personally. Writers Nyman and Dyson imbue the whole with cumulative clues that eventually reveal the protagonists as unreliable narrators. The final explanatory mind-bending trip is somewhat absurd – a familiar narrative trick – but still manages to be unsettling.
Shot mostly in Yorkshire, Ghost Stories offers a form of modern Gothic – taking place in derelict warehouse basements, grimy, nicotine-stained pubs and grim, deserted winter caravan parks. Everything seems overcast, dilapidated, vacant and off-kilter, making the shocks all the more startling.
Nyman and Dyson adapted Ghost Stories for the screen and apparently added subplots and layers, but made little effort to be innovative (there is not a single proper female speaking role in the film – the ‘female’ is almost entirely a source of terror), so the film would appear to be more of a tribute to film and TV shows of past times, rather than intending to break new ground.
Old-school frights and jump scares may have been more startling as cleverly-managed stage illusions in a live-theatre setting, but on the big screen they tend to lose much of their shock value. Nevertheless, the denouement offers a decent twist.