Co-directed by Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemens Jeremy Dyson, this three-part portmanteau horror turns out a disturbing, atmospheric fable
Ghost Stories is a barnstormer of an entertainment, a fairground ride with dodgy brakes. Its an anthology of creepy supernatural tales in the intensely English tradition of Amicus portmanteau movies from the 1960s, such as Dr Terrors House of Horrors, or the Ealing classic Dead of Night. Each story is made individually stranger and tinglier by the way the film allows you to notice an overarching narrative between them, becoming increasingly visible through the uncanny accumulation of coincidental detail.
Writer-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson have adapted it from their colossally successful stage show: Nyman is the actor, writer and magician who has devised productions for Derren Brown; Jeremy Dyson is the actor, comedy writer and co-creator of The League of Gentlemen. I never saw Ghost Stories in the theatre but I wonder if the broader, brasher moments might have been more effective live. On screen, it was the subtler touches I found more disturbing: the strange dreary worlds and interiors with a putrefying wintry light: a seaside caravan park, a crepuscular pub in the middle of the day, a blank modern church. The action is wrapped up with a time-honoured narrative trick that has been with us since cinemas earliest days. It can be overused. But Nyman and Dyson pull it off with tremendous verve.
Nyman plays the lead: professor Philip Goodman, a lecturer, TV celebrity and paranormal debunker who is an atheist and rationalist, driven to expose hoaxes and frauds. But he is also in flight from a guilty and unhappy childhood: a father with an observant Jewish faith, who was heavy-handed with Philip and his older sister. Philip himself grew up hero-worshipping a 70s TV personality who was a debunker in much the way he is now, but who disappeared at the height of his fame like a Lucan or a John Stonehouse and was considered dead. Then Philip is astonished when this man contacts him out of the blue, revealing that his disappearance was to due a personal crisis, a belief that the supernatural might be real after all.
This man tells Philip to reopen the files on three of his cases that wouldnt add up or submit to a rational explanation. Night watchman Tony, played by Paul Whitehouse, experienced a horrible vision. Schoolboy Simon, played by Alex Lawther, had a fright driving home. Retired City trader Mike, played by Martin Freeman, encountered a poltergeist: the spirit of his unborn child. Philip seeks all of them out, and we see their awful experiences in flashback, and Philip himself begins to sense that they may have some terrible, collective significance for him personally.
Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman enjoy themselves greatly in their roles and give terrific support; perhaps especially Whitehouse as Tony, who commands the screen in what is the films most effective, yet determinedly downbeat scene. Philip has arranged to meet him in a gloomy but unsettlingly huge and empty pub. Tony is prickly, defensive, careworn, with jokey mannerisms and yet clearly always on the verge of hostility or even violence towards this nervy telly academic who has sought him out and wants to open up old wounds.
Lawther is fanatically intense as the young man who has been brought to near-breakdown by his experiences and by a dysfunctional home-life. There is an eerily surreal glimpse of his parents standing motionless at the kitchen sink with the tap running. Freemans Mike is a smarmy piece of work on his country estate and a nasty little anti-Semite whose casual jibes to Philip about your lot bring us closer to a terrible flashback that lives perennially in Philips own head.
Ghost Stories is a very male film, dominated by male characters, but it is overtly about a macho sort of anxiety. Its not a film that wants to be subtle and, as I say, its unsubtler flourishes and jump scares may have been more potent in the theatre, like outrageously startling but cleverly managed stage illusions. But theres a tremendous atmosphere to this picture, a dream-like oddness and offness to everything. Nyman and Dyson have created a weird world of menace, despair and decay.