There is a tremendous tradition of British ghost stories that goes as far back as writers such as Charles Dickens, M. R. James, and Jerome K. Jerome. It is a practice that has been kept alive and built upon over the years, and Andy Nyman & Jeremy Dyson’s adaptation of their successful stage play, Ghost Stories, adds to this custom.
Andy Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a lecturer and celebrity debunker of paranormal activity – imagine Darren Brown with less viewers and cheaper clothes. One day he receives a letter from childhood idol and fellow sceptic, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne). He tells Philip that he is wrong about the supernatural, and challenges him to investigate three cases.
The first concerns an embittered night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who has terrifying visions while guarding an abandoned asylum. The next takes him to a very anxious young man (Alex Lawther) who was involved in a demonic run in with a mysterious beast while driving home. For the third case he visits a modernist mansion where a wealthy banker (Martin Freeman) tells of his encounter with a poltergeist and death of his wife. In the final act these stories turn on Philip, and expose his own guilt and trauma.
The characters are all to some degree horror clichés and stereotypes. I get the feeling that their broad characterisations would have been better placed on stage and in a live setting. On screen there are moments when the tropes they occupy descend into caricature and simple categorisation. Where directors like Edgar Wright take well known genre devices and ingeniously subvert them, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson are happy to leave them for the most part intact. It is a film that points out symptoms without ever giving a true diagnosis. The characters’ problems and apparitions are described but never really examined. Similarly, issues of religious intolerance and toxic masculinity may be witnessed, but like the ghost stories themselves no real explanation is given.
Visually there are times when it can look like a student film directed by someone who has watched Shaun of the Dead on repeat. There can be an amateurish charm to the way in which events pan out, but at the same time there is rarely any kind of stylistic subtlety or sophistication. The influence of films like The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London is evident, but there is also a British gothic drabness – think crumbling pubs and uninhabited caravan parks – that is reminiscent of Wright’s work.
It is not until the final third that the directors really take command of the film’s style and tone. Up until this point there is a slightly uneasy combination of horror and folksy English humour that never really match up. The jokes, which are on occasion amusing, may have translated better if they had been given a macabre deadpan quality.
There are a couple scary moments, but they don’t amount to much more than jumps and shouts in the dark. Hard-core horror fans looking for a real fright will probably not be satisfied, but there is enough to make the average film fan’s heart race. There is something undeniably intriguing about Ghost Stories, even if it can be hard to quantify. As a viewer you may be aware of all its flaws and missteps, but you keep watching and waiting for what will come next.