Film adaptations of stage horror are a tricky proposition - good theatre uses the physical space of the stage and the house in ways that a movie simply cannot. Take 'The Woman in Black' for example: in a theatre, it’s genuinely bone-chilling, whereas the movie version was a straightforward haunted house story starring Harry Potter.
‘Ghost Stories’ is based on the acclaimed stage play written by Jeremy Dyson (‘The League Of Gentlemen’) and Andy Nyman. Unlike the recent world-spanning ‘The Field Guide to Evil’, it’s a distinctly British anthology horror movie with a single creative team behind the camera, throwing back to the Amicus films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like ‘Dr. Terror's House of Horrors’, ‘Torture Garden’ and ‘The House that Dripped Blood’.
The original play revolves around Dr Goodman, a Professor of Parapsychology (Andy Nyman, ‘The Commuter’) as he delivers a lecture on ghost stories and discusses a website featuring ghostly pictures, scienceofghosts.com. He has recorded interviews with three people who claim to have had a supernatural experience: a night watchman, a teen driver and a businessman awaiting his first child. Each story seems to hinge on guilty feelings. As each interview is played back, the story is re-enacted on stage.
Released in 2010, the play was notable for running only 80 minutes (with no interval) and for its publicised warnings advising against anyone under the age of 15 attending. No production photographs were used in its marketing, just stills and video monitors showing the shocked reactions of audience members. An announcement at the end of the play would ask the audience to “keep the secrets of 'Ghost Stories'” so that new audiences didn’t have the experience spoiled with any prior information about the play.
The challenge for Nyman and Dyson (who co-directed the film) was how to adapt the play's lecture-based structure, massaging the live flow and spontaneity that electrified auditorium audiences into a 98-minute narrative drama for cinema patrons.
Now a debunker of exploitative showbiz psychics (similar to Rodrigo Cortés’ ‘Red Lights’), Phillip Goodman (Nyman again) is a skeptic of the supernatural who has made a career out of bluntly dashing people’s beliefs in the afterlife and otherworldy phenomenon. Raised by a strict Jewish father, he regards it as his life's work to stop people's lives being ruined by superstition the way his family's were.
When the famed 1970s paranormal investigator he modeled himself after, psychologist Charles Cameron, invites Phillip to reconsider his reasoning, he gives the younger man three case files of supposedly real supernatural ghost sightings he couldn’t crack. The individuals interviewed force Philip to confront his skewed views on his own religious upbringing, a traumatic secret from his past, and reality itself.
The film and the play tackle the suffocating tropes of masculinity, as well as the fear of our loved ones no longer being there, and the understanding that one day we, too, will cease to exist. Belief and faith are key themes in the film - the purpose of Goodman's investigations is to reassure a dying man that his life's work has not all been for nothing, carried out under the false belief that everything is as it seems.
Unfortunately, while the film is peppered with many clever hints that lead neatly to its conclusion, that same ingenuity isn’t reflected in the three stories.
So far, so interesting... but is ‘Ghost Stories’ actually scary?
Unfortunately, while the film is peppered with many clever hints that lead neatly to its conclusion, that same ingenuity isn’t reflected in the three stories. Like Dyson’s work on ‘The League of Gentlemen’, anyone with a passing knowledge of horror cinema will immediately spot some dustily familiar scenarios.
The first case is a night watchman, Tony Matthews (comedian Paul Whitehouse, ‘The Death of Stalin’), whose believes he was haunted by the spirit of a young girl while working in a disused asylum for women. It’s basically a repeat of director Ole Bornedal’s 1994 thriller ‘Nattevagten’, with a lone man in a brightly lit office, a dark and spooky location, a skipping record player, etc. The segment is buoyed by Whitehouse’s impressive tough guy acting.
The second is a teenager, Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’), who is obsessed with the occult and lives in a house straight out of a David Lynch daydream. His car breaks down after running over a mysterious creature in the woods. Goodman, although unsettled by the second case, believes that each of them has an obvious rational explanation: the supposed victims imagined them, based on their own neuroses.
The third case is a pompous London financier, Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, ‘Black Panther’), who was plagued by a poltergeist while awaiting the birth of his child. Cue: a lot of stuff falling over and a mediocre spectre.
Phillips investigation eventually leads to an ending that audiences will either view as audacious and cleverly foreshadowed or just another example of a tired, unoriginal genre trope.
Although it doesn’t hang together as tightly on screen as it did on stage, ‘Ghost Stories’ is still an eerie, cleverly-assembled horror film, with scares that will vary depending on how big of a horror buff you are.