Directors: Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
Starring: Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther, Nicholas Burns, Andy Nyman, Jill Halfpenny, Paul Whitehouse
Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen) and Andy Nyman (known for his work with illusionist Derren Brown), the stage play Ghost Stories has enjoyed a successful run since it first opened in 2010, their loving homage to the horror films of yesteryear striking a chord with audiences from London to Sydney. Sadly, Dyson and Nyman’s film adaptation of their own work fails to measure up, the techniques that elicited chills in the theatre coming across as tired and worn on the big screen.
Nyman himself plays Professor Phillip Goodman, an investigator who hosts a TV show debunking ‘supernatural’ hoaxes and psychic charlatans. His confident assumption that there is a logical explanation behind all supposedly unearthly happenings is challenged, however, following an encounter with Goodman’s childhood hero, himself a former skeptic who has been unable to explain away three particular cases. Goodman’s investigation of these mysteries leads him to interview three people who claim to have had uncanny experiences.
My job is to explain the unexplainable. Untangle the truth from the fiction.
Their tales make up the bulk of the film’s relatively short running time. In the first, a nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) has a terrifying experience while on duty. In the second, a highly strung teenager (Alex Lawther) encounters a strange beast while driving down a lonely forest road. And in the third, Martin Freeman plays a wealthy banker whose modernist mansion becomes his own personal nightmare after his heavily pregnant wife is hospitalised.
And initially, there’s some fun to be had with this carnival ghost ride. The first tale benefits from a genuinely terrific performance from Whitehouse, who in a rare foray into non-comedic acting demonstrates what a fine dramatic performer he can be. His nightwatchman is embittered, lonely and nearly bent double under the weight of family trauma; an early scene between him and Goodman is comfortably the film’s best. His tale is also the most effective of Ghost Stories‘ ghost stories – for all its reliance on genre cliches (creepy mannequins! abandoned mental asylums!) it offers up some decidedly spooky scares.
Things are not always as they seem
Unfortunately, from there, things swiftly begin to go downhill. Lawther gives an undeniably expressive performance, but his tale of woodland woe is not as punchy (nor half as scary) as its predecessor, and the sequence’s unexpected injection of humour, while amusing enough in its own right, sits rather awkwardly alongside the largely non-comedic rest of the film. The banker’s tale meanwhile is comfortably the film’s worst, as Freeman (a long way off his best) runs on autopilot through a succession of eye-rollingly predictable frights.
Through it, all the cliches and genre tropes pile up. A homage to beloved horror classics Ghost Stories may be, but reverence for the past is a poor excuse for such complete lack of originality – there is not a single aspect of the film you won’t have seen done better elsewhere. An over-reliance on unsubtle jump scares meanwhile undermines Ghost Stories’ attempts to build up a lingering sense of dread.
Still, for about three-quarters of its run-time Ghost Stories is an over-familiar but serviceable enough low-budget horror. Sadly the wheels come off entirely in the final act, as the three stories come together in a way that the creators clearly think is wildly clever but is in fact overwhelmingly silly and tragically obvious. Neither scary nor inventive enough to justify its own existence, Ghost Stories, in the end, makes for depressingly predictable fare. For all Nyman’s work with Brown, this is one magician’s trick that you’ll see through instantly.