Early on in this blog I remarked that short form is probably the best way to tell a ghost story, it spares the need for an explanation that always seems to disappoint, but of course a short film is not so much of an attractive proposition for film distributors and cinemas. Thus the portmanteau film, with its three or four separate tales told with a linking arc proved a popular solution. The 60s and 70s were their heyday with such cult classics as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971) and my personal favourite From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974).
This sub genre now as a new lease of life in the form of Ghost Stories, adapted from Writer-Directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s hugely successful stage play. The film plays to the strengths of the medium with the subtler use of sound, light and editing rather than the big reveals and sleight of hand used so effectively in the live version.
Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is a rationalist and debunker of paranormal charlatans (think Richard Dawkins crossed with Derren Brown only with less knowledge, charm and talent). He’s given three cases to solve by his childhood hero who he long thought dead, now living in squalor with only cheap scotch and slightly unconvincing old man make up for company (and you really are looking for the moment when he’s revealed to be someone else).
We see flashbacks to Philip’s unhappy childhood and while this informs a motivation of sorts it doesn’t really go anywhere, so although we see him as driven, he’s also clearly selfish and arrogant.
The three cases, a night-watchman in a disused mental asylum, a teenager alone in the woods at night and the malevolent spirit of an as yet unborn child cut across a variety of horror tropes and clichés to generally good effect. They also take in a wide variety of class and backgrounds, the night-watchman is worried about losing his job to immigrants, a youngster trying to pass his driving test and escape the confines of his parents and the City trader’s wife not wanting children until she’d made Partner at her firm. The daily concerns of different people, on different levels of the social strata, all united in terror by an encounter with the supernatural. And yet each case – dealt with in flashback – isn’t concluded in the narrative before the next one begins, leading to a slightly disjointed, unsatisfying feeling.
When the twist comes, it’s so great that it threatens to take you completely out of the drama and I can’t help wondering if leaving it to a little nearer the end would have been more effective. It initially made me feel somewhat cheated but the significance of the occasionally glimpsed numbers and the odd throwaway references to something affecting Goodman and his perception lead to a horrible revelation from his childhood, where anti-Semitism was a very real threat.
This a superbly played piece with the three lead actors in each thread, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman all giving delightfully intense performances, in particular Lawther, as a teenager on the very edge of his sanity in a role that would have been so easy to overact and send into parody yet Lawther carries you with him, and it’s such a shame that the twist robs something from these moments. Humour is also in fairly high supply and there are a number of laugh out loud moments but sensibly few enough not to undercut the horror.
However women are in somewhat shorter supply in the film and this is a work that concentrates on the male experience, and examines male anxieties without much in the way the way of solutions but then why should it? It’s probably enough that it grounds the problems of reality alongside the supernatural without trivialising the former.
Ultimately this is a film where atmosphere is king and it succeeds on that level. Nyman and Dyson have created a work of creeping dread and death, and a world where no-one, rich or poor alike, is safe. A world where the ghosts are real, whether they’re in your head or not.