ON IN CINEMAS
Ghost Stories (2017) starring Andy Nyman and Martin Freeman
Three tales of spectral chills
This supernatural horror anthology is adapted from a stage play of the same name. Andy Nyman (who, alongside Jeremy Dyson, co-wrote and co-directed both this film and its source) plays Professor Goodman, who has dedicated his life to exposing various supernatural and psychic frauds via his TV programme. His idol is Charles Cameron, a parapsychologist who mysteriously disappeared after a recent automobile accident. Goodman manages to trace him to a dismal coastal caravan park.
When they finally meet face-to-face, however, Cameron tells him that his long-held skepticism towards the paranormal has all been a lie. He sets his younger descendant a task: to disprove three unexplained cases of ghostly manifestations. With blue paper file in hand, Goodman heads out to interview the three hauntees. Each one tells their respective story via flashback.
The first, Mike Priddle (Paul Whitehouse), used to work as a night watchman at a storehouse which was formerly an insane asylum for women. He had to leave after experiencing some rather creepy goings-on. The second, Simon Rifkind, is an adolescent who took his parent’s car out one night under the false pretence of having passed his driving test. Whilst being distracted talking on his mobile with his mother and father, he ran over a mysterious creature which turned out to be distinctively demonic in appearance. The final, Tony Matthews (Martin Freeman) is a wealthy stock market trader who encountered a terrifying spirit while his wife was giving birth in hospital.
Moreover, while Goodman remains adamant that there are rational explanations for what happened to these three hapless individuals, he himself starts glimpsing various mysterious figures lurking around him, amongst them being a man in a dark green hooded coat.
Watch a trailer:
A promising play-to-film adaptation
Despite being an adaptation of a play, Ghost Stories proves to be largely successful in sidestepping staginess - especially considering that it is Dyson and Nyman’s big-screen directorial debut. This is evident right from the start as some hazy, bittersweet flashbacks chronicle Goodman’s time growing up in a Jewish family. The recreations of the age-faded 1970s TV programme presented by Charles Cameron are similarly effective, capturing the dismal trappings of this era in British history with unnerving accuracy. The scenes involving Goodman’s interviews with the various haunting victims do betray the inherent talkiness of its stage roots but ultimately act as little more than the setup for the recreated supernatural encounters.
There’s a solid grasp on atmosphere and effectively-deployed shocks, particularly during the first of the three stories. While many of the scare tactics are nothing new (sudden noises, a room full of mannequins, the power going off at inopportune moments and so on), Dyson and Nyman display a fine understanding of what made them work so well in the first place. They make some bone-chillingly effective use of the reduced visibility within the pitch-black environs of the former asylum. The second and third stories are slightly less startling but still work well enough.
The performances are, for the most part, decent. Nyman plays his professional skeptic in a matter that is both sympathetic and mildly arrogant. Comedian Paul Whitehouse ably handles a more serious role as a disenchanted Middle Englander dealt further damage by his spectral experiences. Best of all, however, is Martin Freeman, who displays the kind of assured genre affinity that Hammer icons like Christopher Lee used to make their own. There’s one actor who has been saddled with some pretty awful “old man” prosthetics - but thankfully only for a few minutes’ worth of screen time.
Despite all of its fine qualities, however, Ghost Stories fails in one major factor which is readily associated with the finest portmanteau horrors: its payoff. Indeed, the three individual stories don’t really have much of a payoff per se, over and above “that was really scary”. There’s a wider wraparound story with a vaguely “moral” twist in the tale. However, even this feels somewhat underwhelming because there is little sense that the three episodes feed into the twist or properly illuminate it. Indeed, the main achievement of this climactic revelation (while I won’t give it away) is that it basically highlights how they are little more than empty exercises in spookiness.
Ghost Stories achieves that rather frustrating mix: as a horror film, it’s decent enough that it can’t be wholeheartedly dismissed, yet it is never quite satisfying enough to reach true greatness. The fact that its release clashes with A Quiet Place doesn’t help its cause, either.
Runtime: 98 mins
Dir: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Script: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Starring: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther