Director: Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson
Screenplay: Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson
Starring: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther, Nicholas Burns, Jill Halfpenny, Paul Whitehouse
Runtime: 98 Minutes
Adapted from the celebrated stage play of the same name by writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, Ghost Stories carries a deceptively clever title. While the narrative concerns the quest of Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) to disprove three incidents of supernatural ghost sightings, this triptych of haunting stories share common themes of guilt and grief with past dealings of which reflect on the life of Goodman in deeply personal ways relating to his own repressed past and upbringing.
What it also shares is the figurative ghost of The League of Gentlemen, the comedy troupe of which Dyson is the fourth member. The strange ambience and mood of dark comedy and horror that hovers over the film like a musky of obscurity build into its atmosphere as a terrifically staged and visually interpreted representation of the stage play for a cinematic medium.
The stories each hold their own in unique ways, feeling like compelling short films in their own right. Nightwatchman Tony Matthews’ (Paul Whitehouse) horrifying visions in an abandoned asylum is played like a dark spook house. Schoolboy Simon Rifkind’s (Alex Lawther) run in with a creature in the woods is the most outwardly amusing, presenting itself like the tamed offspring of Sam Rami’s Evil Dead. Mike Priddle’s (Martin Freeman) wealthy and smarmy estate owner encounters poltergeist activity broad daylight, only to have it return as something far worse once the sun has set on his archly designed modern home.
Nyman is a strong lead with enough bewilderment and sympathy in his reactions to make his character believable. Whitehouse is an unassailable presence who plays things the most straight and unsettling of the bunch, feeding into his own segment that feels like the most ominous of the three. Lawther is tremendous as the clearly traumatised youth, he’s an actor who’s able to weaponize his own snivelling and inhibited manner of performance to great effect.
But Freeman almost walks away with the whole film as a terrifically unselfconscious piece of work who is scared stiff by his first-hand experiences with what he believes to be evil, with revelations later on allowing him to put so much of his pitch-perfect physicality to work.
The production is low key in its use of settings and only a handful of actors on hand, but it feels much larger than that in not only the devilishly playful ways it presents its three supernatural stories. The sweep of a narrative hazed by a mystique that slowly unravels itself to have been about something else entirely the whole time. Anyone familiar with Dyson’s past work or Nyman’s or his love of ghost stories and tricksy narratives will find its recurring visuals and nods a treat as they figure out the intricacies of its unnerving and brilliantly executed climax.
The few shortcomings that are there are made more noticeable by the rest of its technical and artistic merits being so high for a production so small. The editing between certain scenes leaves things a little discombobulated even if it is by design come the film’s close, and while the loud noises will have worked well on stage they feel tired in the context of the cinematic medium in which they are wheeled out a bit too often as a cheap scare. But even that plays in its favour as an enjoyable spook house romp that startles and relieves as much as it wants to unsettle with some of its imagery and great physical effects and lighting.
Ghost Stories is the kind of treat that were it a small book it could be popped in the breast pocket to spook you in the waking hours. It settles into something far more obscure than it initially appears, but its a rewarding and satisfying piece of supernatural fiction that has its feet placed firmly on the ground.