Believe the hype – gripping, thrilling, and brilliant.
Ghost Stories is perhaps one of the most noted plays of the last decade. Premiering in 2010, the brainchild of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the play gained notoriety for both distressing its audience and for being incredibly cine-literate. It is little surprise then that in 2018 the pair are tasked with bringing their atmospheric tale of ghostly goings on to the big screen. Does it translate in terrifying fashion or is it revealed as nothing more than smoke and mirrors?
Essentially Ghost Stories follows paranormal debunker Professor Phillip Goodman and his investigation into the cases of three people who claim to have personally encountered the supernatural. In traditional anthology style, it becomes apparent as the plot rattles along that Goodman’s involvement, his own journey, is increasingly integral to the events as we see them develop.
It is his through the eyes of Goodman the sceptic that we experience the individual cases and we share his doubts about the veracity and reliability of the witnesses. It is testament to the complexity of the turning cogs that we – as he – become increasingly disorientated and confused by events. By the end, when Ghost Stories reveals its hand and truth of proceedings is unveiled, quite how far the audience has gone down the rabbit hole becomes apparent. As an ending it’s enormously satisfying and, unlike many genre movies, feels completely deserved; an elegant dovetailing of explicit and implicit clues that are all tied neatly together in ninety minutes. Seeds of how the overarching story may play out are planted early on but the audience are perpetually distracted and misled as the threads continue to ravel into a more tangible string. This cinematic sleight of hand is very elegantly done and speaks loudly to Ghost Stories’ theatrical origins.
None of this would count for much however if the talent in front of the camera were not all top drawer. Nyman himself, as he did on stage, stars as lead Phillip Goodman, a convincing schlubby everyman whose character arc spirals in unexpected ways. The rest of the cast is limited to three main characters: Martin Freeman’s Mike Priddle, a businessman with a secret; Alex Lawther’s Simon Rifkind, a young man haunted by a chance encounter; and Tony Matthews, played by Paul Whitehouse, a night watchman on his final shift. Each actor brings something unique to their role – whether it’s Lawther’s jittery brittleness when telling his story, Whitehouse’s gruff working man, or Freeman playing against type as a the chappishly arrogant Priddle – and is unerringly convincing as a man from humble and mundane origins who may, or may not, be haunted by supernatural forces. For such a small cast to hold an audience – there’s hardly ever more than two on screen at any one time – is testament to their skill.
In recent years, the term ‘jump-scare’ has become almost a byword for uninventive and lazy genre moviemaking. Often accompanied by sudden music, audiences in modern times are most familiar with the technique as employed by the Paranormal Activity franchise and its ilk, and used to punctuate long periods of inactivity. However jump scares, true jump scares, speak to something more; a subtle and clever manipulation of the audience, shocked as their expectations are overturned. In this respect, Dyson and Nyman’s clever use of the technique, coupled with their overpowering sense of dread, is impressive stuff. In each of Ghost Stories separate threads, there are frights aplenty but not the cheap, garden variety – these are proper, deep, involuntary shocks the type of which have been sadly increasingly rare in contemporary horror. Shadows flitting just out of sight, figures that appear disappear at will, and other predictable horror tropes are used here in unexpected and creative ways, as well as some unexpected, left field ones.
Dyson, one of the BBC’s super-talented League of Gentlemen, and Nyman – a long-time collaborator of mentalist Derrin Brown – really excel in their ability to create and maintain tension. Each of the threads clearly portrays the theatrical origins of Ghost Stories; small scale stories, claustrophobic settings, and a tiny cast in such capable hands also becomes incredibly cinematic. The atmosphere is palpable throughout whether it’s in the large set pieces – a boy stranded in a car at night, a watchman in an abandoned warehouse – or in the smaller scale conversations between Goodman and his apparent witnesses, and there’s a clear sense of cogs turning. Consequently, the audience feel they are never more than another few minutes away from having the rug pulled again. Nyman’s work with Brown is keenly felt throughout; a fundamental understanding of how to affect an audience by either the most subtle, or most obvious, of means. For genre fans however it is no surprise that – like the other Gentlemen – Dyson is incredibly horror-literate, and there is much fun to be had spotting references to such disparate sources as Raimi’s seminal Evil Dead and Nicolas’ Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. This extends to the movie’s use of light and darkness; light is not a permanent, even in the daytime scenes, often yellow and sickly and the audience learns not to trust much of what they see. Darkness is prevalent but it is where the two meet that Dyson and Nyman have real fun; shadows pool, pour, and sit in inky pools across the screen, or are used as yet another way to disconcert the viewer – one character’s journey round an empty building owes more than a little to F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu.
There are many allusions in Ghost Stories, many links to other famous genre movies, many comparisons to be drawn. The most effective is with that of a ghost train; a sense of thrill at the journey, the theatrical sleight of hand, the ghouls popping out in exhilarating ways both foreseen and unforeseen, the overwhelming lack of control; all of these apply to Ghost Stories too. As a play, it was a disorienting, atmospheric, and startling experience. As a movie, it is all these things and more; a subtle, unnerving, and thrilling journey in to the unknown, a movie where the less known beforehand the better. It is certainly a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen with the largest audience possible. It is elegant, clever, genuinely creepy, and one of the best horror movies of the past twelve months. See it.