The writing and directing team of Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson are responsible for bringing us the likes of Derren Brown’s TV shows and the eerie The League of Gentlemen. So, it’s small wonder, then, that their stage-to-screen adaptation of their own play, Ghost Stories, has more than a feeling of uneasiness throughout it. It’s a creeping uncertainty that never quite allows you to fully relax into the film and it absolutely heightens the tension and scares throughout.
The film is an anthology of horror stories, woven together like a love letter to British B movies of the same genre. It may well keep you guessing till the end; you may well work out the “big reveal”. What is certain to stump you, however, is being able to spot Derren Brown’s vocal cameo …
Professional skeptic, Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) agrees to take on three unsolved cases at the request of his hero – and fellow “non-believer”, Charles Cameron – in order to prove, once and for all, that the supernatural can be explained away. “The mind sees what it wants to see,” Goodman keeps reiterating.
The film also touches on complex familial relationships and the influence of religion and mental health on perceived paranormal experiences. Sadly, it never really goes into much depth on these themes, which would have made for some more interesting character and storyline development.
You are left to solve the puzzles alongside Goodman, and this allows the three main story strands to unravel neatly. His first case is with the jaded night watchman, Wooly (Paul Whitehouse) who describes his encounter with poltergeist-like activity during his final shift at an abandoned mental asylum. The flashback to the night in question is really quite terrifying, complete with looped, twinkly music and jump scares aplenty.
He then moves on to meet up with the disturbed, vulnerable Simon Rifkind (the phenomenal Alex Lawther – seriously, this guy does unhinged better than anyone else). His room is filled with demonic drawings and dusty old books. Martin Freeman finishes off the set, as the slightly menacing Mike Priddle, who experiences odd goings on in the family nursery.
Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography is excellent. The daytime palettes are awash with browns and greens – the dull “ordinariness” of the everyday” – whilst the ghostly flashbacks are tinged with inky blues and icy silvers. The contrast between the different styles of encounters furthers the sense of unease – literally no location, no situation seems safe. The jumpy editing and looping, close-up camera work really does make your teeth clench. There is the constant sense of something being out of sync or “not quite right”.
And that’s what the film really excels at – allowing you to think that you’re getting to grips with the plot and then showing you something unsettling in order to throw you off again. It’s like being in a hall of mirrors and seeing a shadow at your back.
The “big reveal” at the end might not be the most original plot twist ever – and I imagine it works better on stage than it did on screen – but it works well and will give many viewers an “a ha” moment as they piece together all of the clues that were shown to them throughout.
And, in a true display of quirk, after doing all it can to put you on edge for the past 98 minutes, the film ends with the delightfully light-hearted “Monster Mash” playing over the credits. It felt like a ride through a truly terrifying ghost train before being met with fairground music as you roll back into the station.
With some well executed scares and great performances, I’m almost certain that Ghost Stories is destined to have a niche, cult following in the future.