Ghost Stories started life in 2010 as a stage play that quickly became a word-of-mouth hit. Those who attended were asked not to give away any of the twists, and for the film adaptation, written and directed by original creators Andy Nyman (known for his work with illusionist Derren Brown) and Jeremy Dyson (one quarter of The League of Gentlemen), I shall attempt to do the same, for I feel that you’ll get the most out of it if you go in knowing as little as possible.
But as the bare-bones plot summary itself isn’t a spoiler, let’s start there. Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman) is a parapsychologist and debunker of the supernatural, until one day he receives three cases from a former paranormal investigator, three cases the investigator failed to explain, that he claims are proof that the supernatural is real: a night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse) haunted by a spirit in a former women’s asylum; a teenager (Alex Lawther) who has a potentially demonic encounter while driving home through the woods; and a city banker (Martin Freeman) menaced by a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his first child. Goodman sets out to prove there are rational explanations for each, but in doing so finds himself going from passive observer to active participant, with chilling consequences.
Of course, when it comes to horror films (especially one titled Ghost Stories), there’s only one question that really matters: is it scary? Yes. By god, yes! The DNA of M.R. James, The League of Gentlemen, British horror (and horror cinema in general) runs through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. Like all classic ghost stories, ‘Sins of the Past’ is the major theme running throughout; each character has a fatal flaw, secrets, things that come back, literally, to haunt them.
The film is brilliant at ramping up the tension to almost excruciating levels, through great use of light and dark – great use is made, as per Nyman and Dyson’s goal, of the British scenery, but the landscapes used are either decrepit or desolate, where even daytime scenes have a slightly bleached, unfriendly look– and of creative camera angles, such as keeping the subject in the foreground off to the side, so the audience’s eye is drawn to the out of focus background, waiting for something to appear; which, admittedly is not an original technique but it’s utilised effectively, helping to build atmosphere and suspense so that the scares land.
This is helped along by excellent performances from the cast. Nyman, who also played Goodman in the original play, has clearly made the part his own, but Lawther and Freeman also give affecting performances (particularly Lawther as teenager Simon Rifkind, slowly becoming unhinged by what he’s experienced); and Paul Whitehouse really shows off his straight acting chops. If you go in expecting comedy Paul Whitehouse, then get ready for a surprise – humour is present but it’s of the pitch-black variety.
So, does the brain only ever see what it wants to see, or do we make it see only what we want to see? What do you see? Whatever it is you see, if you like your horror unsettling and intelligent, and didn’t get to see the play (or even if you did) definitely go and see this.