Directors: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Cast: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther
It’s a tough time to be a horror film at the moment. With John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place currently earning its rave reviews, others may struggle to perform in its eerie shadow. British-born Ghost Stories is one such film coming up the ranks to contend for its title of best horror this year (thus far, at least). Whilst not quite on par with horror born out of the East (Japan and Korea know how to horrify, and closer-to-the-West Spain knows a thing or two), British horror often outshines American attempts at the genre, critically speaking, despite rarely having the financial backing to go fully international upon release. Is that something that Brit favourites Dyson and Nyman can boast about with Ghost Stories, or have the Americans managed to pip them to the bloodied post this year?
Based on Dyson and Nyman’s own hit West End play, Ghost Stories sees paranormal de-bunker and sceptic Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman) called upon by his childhood hero to investigate three cases he could not explain. Each case involves a man affected by some spooky goings-on that he’s witnessed: Tony (Whitehouse), a night-watchman at an abandoned women’s refuge, experiences a ghostly apparition and some light-flickering; Simon (Lawther), a young man with verbally-aggressive parents, is attacked by some unknown hellish creature; and Mike (Freeman), a wealthy businessman, is haunted by a malevolent poltergeist whilst awaiting the birth of his first child. Goodman investigates each case and concludes each one is simple enough for a child to explain away. But, as the movie’s tagline suggests, the brain sees what it wants to see, and not everything is as it seems.
This is a very, very British film when it comes to style. A horror it may be marketed as, but it contains that unexpected and dark humour that is often a signature of British-made horror. It’s unsurprising when one of its creators, Dyson, is a co-founder and co-writer of the popular television comedy show The League of Gentlemen. Nyman, on the other hand, has worked with television and stage mentalist/illusionist Derren Brown on his shows, and so together Dyson and Nyman created something that scared people silly onstage whilst bringing a deep psychological turn to every scare and to the finale. The film is dialogue-heavy, a clue as to its theatrical origins, and can go on for a bit longer than should probably be necessary in a film. Nevertheless, it’s always tough to translate a play into a film, and vice versa, and overall the film does a decent enough job of toning down the theatrics enough to create something more dramatic.
As performances go, each one is different, providing a variety of experience, talent and range. Nyman is decent enough as the straight-laced and somewhat bland Goodman, though that blandness is explained away and turned into something deeper toward the ending, with Nyman rising to the psychologically challenging turn in his performance. Whitehouse perfectly plays a tough yet soft cockney character in Tony, though at times, between the character’s dialogue and Whitehouse’s performance, it felt like watching an episode of The Bill or some other crime/drama television show rather than a movie. Lawther, always a pleasure to see onscreen, plays mentally cracked teenager Simon commendably. A slight comedic turn for him in one particular instance throws out a laugh at the perfect moment, a very British reaction indeed. And Freeman as Mike is a little less Freeman than one might normally come to expect from him, tossing some verbal nuances into his performance rather than playing to his usual talents of monotony and, for lack of a better description, Englishness. His performance, like Nyman’s, picks up toward the end too, resulting in an overall more rounded performance.
Plot-wise, it is quite predictable for the first hour or so. The ‘jump scares’ aren’t as effective as they seem to be in the stage show (or so the reputation goes), however the creepiness of the individual stories makes up for that, to a degree. It’s also worth noting that if you’re not the most observational person then there are a few things you could miss that link the stories together and help to build to the finale. Some are more obvious than others, but if directors Dyson and Nyman have put something into shot that may seem random or odd, remember that it’s not: it is there for a reason and you should be making mental notes, otherwise certain thinks later on will seem random and odd and may not fully make sense. This may be a tactic lifted straight out of the stage show, in which everything on stage is there for a reason and is easier to take into account, however on film it may not be quite so obvious.
As horror films go, particularly British horror, Ghost Stories isn’t going to live on in infamy. It has a good go of it, but its psychologically thrilling aspects are far more interesting and terrifying in ways that the actual ‘horror’ scenes aren’t. Dyson and Nyman use a lot of old horror film strategies to try and get a rise out of their audiences, but they’re old for a reason. It takes a lot more to scare people in this day and age. Perhaps that is too general a statement: there will be people (and other reviews have proven so) that will find this film pretty scary, but to the horror enthusiast it will fall quite flat. It does however make the stage show seem that much more enticing and might actually be a better way to experience Dyson and Nyman’s writing. 2017’s The Ritual was a good example of decent British horror, also containing that dark humour that contributes to the genre, but Ghost Stories doesn’t quite reach its level. And so it seems, on this occasion, the Americans have horrified audiences to a higher degree. We’ll let them have it this once.
A quick final note, the film’s array of posters (below) are a sight to behold and must be showcased. The Rorschach-style posters really put to work the movie’s tagline of the brain seeing what it wants to see, and the more luminous, hellish ones are just beautiful and reminiscent of older B-movie horrors. Definitely worth a look.