A young man named Simon (wonderfully performed by Alex Lawther) sits in a broken down car surrounded by a gloomy, looming nightscape awaiting help. Just as things couldn’t get any worse, a creature enters the car; “stay,” it says. “F**k that,” replies Simon, running out of the car into the dangerous impossibilities of the forest. It is a moment that perhaps best helps summarise Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s directorial feature debut. It’s terrifying, it’s hilarious, and it’s very, very British.
Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is the mind behind the television show Psychic Cheats. Growing up in a repressive and strictly religious household, Goodman yearns to debunk the spiritual, aiming to prove that there is nothing to this world other than what we see. His confidence is then challenged, however, when his idol and inspiration contacts him and asks him to debunk three cases of which he has failed to disprove. This opens up the narrative to a series of chilling tales that provide opportunity for a range of horror tropes and conventions to be manipulated and explored in horrific and amusing ways.
Ghost Stories, adapted from the creator’s very own stage play, is essentially an anthology film, of which we have seen in excess in recent years. Yet, this is a collection of shorts that feels cleverly compiled and stitched into one rare and complete whole. The introduction of different stories feels logical and appropriate, rather than settling for slapdash resolution to suggest a pattern in narratives. The film is anchored by a skeptical protagonist who, much like ourselves, is hesitant to believe in a barrage of smoke and mirrors mysticism. The three stories attempt to sway Goodman, and the audience, into believing the visualised accounts of the interviewees; accounts so unsettling that it’s hard not to approach them with sincerity. The storytellers have become prisoners of their own fear – their knowledge of what lurks in the darkness has shaken them forever – and this source of torment is utilised to craft an unsettling atmosphere, but also dashes of maniacal comedy; the two never compromise the other, and this is a balance so difficult to strike.
The first story relies on old and new genre cliches, and acts as a textbook example of how to build creeping tension using light and darkness. It is easily the most terrifying of the film’s segments, and plays out like a modern reimagining of an old British ghost tale in the vein of Jack Clayton’s 1961 classic, The Innocents; made to feel even more British in that it’s being told in a pub. There are jump scares, but they miraculously work because they aren’t used simply as a cheap device, but as one of many ways in which the story is crafted to intimidate the audience. Silence is crucial, as are lingering camera shots and eerie locations, all of which are respected. The second story is much more elaborate, but by cranking up the humour, it warns the viewer to perhaps have more fun with this one – after all, horror should be fun, and this is a film that really boasts it’s “scare yourself silly” approach. Nevertheless, the mise en scene, even in such instances, is photographed beautifully to achieve the vision of human pawns in a supernatural game of cat and mouse.
As Goodman’s quest continues into his third interview, his own experiences become tedious as he ultimately appears to disregard his own statements on the unexplained to have his skepticism remain intact. However, it all leads to something much more sinister. The third tale – perhaps too reliant on tired horror tropes – offers a disappointing but fortunately false conclusion, because Dyson and Nyman still have much more in store, intent on sending patrons home from this fairground attraction of a project with a shiver down their spine and a spring in their step. In this respect, the film is a roaring success.
There are some great performances, particularly from Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman, who provide some dry British wit. Seasoned horror fans will appreciate the allusions to classics of the genre, which are sometimes a little too on the nose, but always lively. Impressions that too many cliches were pumped into the third tale are justified, and the concluding revelation, although visually accomplished and effective, is nothing audiences haven’t seen before. Ghost Stories’ real impact remains in its genuine power to scare, and then unashamedly, raise a chuckle or two. A better horror film may appear this year, but one thing is for sure – it won’t be as much fun as this.