Adapted from their hit West End play, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories is the kind of enjoyably conventional British horror film that has been slightly done away with in the age of ever more high-concept chillers. It’s got woodland menace, an abandoned asylum, birds flying into windows, and a sense of very English campy charm that all mark it out as a throwback to the anthology horrors of old, a rattling ghost train that hardly brings anything new to the table but is fun all the same.
Linking the three separate tales of the supernatural is sceptic and professional debunker Professor Philip Goodman (co-director Nyman), who is attempting to find a rational solution to each mystery. The first, and by far the strongest, is the story of night watchman Tony (Paul Whitehouse). Stuck on the graveyard shift at a run-down former mental institution, he’s haunted by a skittering, scratching spirit of a young girl. Small breaks in the tension serve to make the fear’s return that much more powerful each time, and it also features the film’s strongest dissection of scepticism and spiritualism’s respective values. Dank misery wafts over every frame, and Whitehouse is perfectly cast, playing the role of a grieving sinner completely straight.
The following segment is a lot shorter, and played more for dark laughs than real scares as a twitchy kid terrified of his parents (Alex Lawther) meets Satan in the woods after his car breaks down. Lawther is given some great lines, and his fear-contorted face in close-up is one of Ghost Stories’s most powerful special effects, but the danger he’s in never feels as real as it does in the other stories. Goodman’s interview with him after the fact is a lot creepier though, as the supernatural elements start stalking into Goodman’s previously rational and self-assured reality.
Most of the final act is taken up by a story invented solely for the film version of Ghost Stories, that of a super-rich trader (Martin Freeman) finding a poltergeist in his palatial home. This story itself is rather thin, but Goodman’s investigation of it starts taking ever weirder turns that leave what is real, and even the professor’s sanity, in question. There’s quite a few very stagy moments in this part, odd given that it doesn’t come directly from the play, some of which work very well but others that will prove divisive and can feel cheap.
This is especially pronounced in the ending, which is simultaneously fascinating and very annoying. Nyman and Dyson leave very few questions unanswered, but in sapping so much of the film of its mystery, this tying up of all loose ends means that the atmosphere and dread that they work so hard to create hardly lingers as the credits roll. This may well be deliberate – the closing song is ‘Monster Mash’, so we’re clearly not meant to be taking things too seriously – but it isn’t quite satisfying enough. There’s also some tonal clash here, a distressingly realistic flashback to brutal bullying not really fitting in with the sillier stuff surrounding it.
On a technical level, you can’t really fault Ghost Stories. It makes the most of every penny in its budget, and DOP Ole Bratt Birkeland gets as much foreboding darkness as he can out of every grim location, be it the autumnal moors or a depressing pub. Ghost Stories is clearly the creation of filmmakers with a deep love for and knowledge of British horror, but it can’t quite escape its stagy trappings enough to match up with the best of the genre.