Guilt is a tricky thing that can undo a person entirely. From Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, to Christian Bale’s staggeringly thin Machinist, the idea of guilt and the things that it can do to a person, has been central to horror. The power of guilt drives the plots of so many horror films, from Don’t Look Now to The Gift, and now, it powers the engine that is Ghost Stories.
Adapted from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s West End smash, Ghost Stories is a throwback to the horror stories they loved, with shades of M.R. James, Hammer horror, and perhaps its closest relative, the portmanteau horror cinema of Amicus. As in the play, Andy Nyman stars at Phillip Goodman, a Derren Brown/James Randi psychic debunker who is handed a folder containing three stories that he is told cannot be explained. These stories form the crux of the story, with Goodman visiting and being relayed the tales of a night-watchman (a superb Paul Whitehouse), a young teen (Alex Lawther, twitchy), and a City banker (an awkward Martin Freeman).
Each tale may, on the surface, appear separate, but as the film progresses the connections between them become more apparent, and their connection to Goodman, and an incident in his past, becomes clearer. That these characters are fuelled by guilt is no coincidence, it is the thread that weaves through the story, even through the narrator, who is haunted by ghosts both metaphorical and (possibly) literal.
It’s clear from the outset that Ghost Stories belongs on stage, and its transition to screen is more than a little unwieldy. An opening featuring Goodall debunking a psychic live on stage would make for a brilliantly subversive way to open a play, but it’s unnecessary here. Likewise, some scares and gags fall flat where onstage they would delight (several fluttering papers in Martin Freeman’s rather drab segment come to mind).
Andy Nyman makes for a fairly uninteresting central character, though his role (certainly until the final third) is our role, an audience surrogate, sitting and listening to the stories the other, far more interesting characters have to tell. Those stories are, on the whole, quite effective, ratcheting up the tension and delivering scares with precision. In particular, the first of the three stories, featuring Paul Whitehouse’s night-watchman does a decent job of making you jump. But the problem is that these stories do little else.
They are engines for delivering frights and they achieve their goal, but each of them builds up to its biggest scare and then, just ends. There’s no conclusion to them, and their sudden endings mean that we never really end up caring about the characters, and never really end up emotionally engaging with any of it. Ghost Stories whisks you through its run time, but never asks you to care about any of it. This makes the end especially weak, where a horribly contrived climax straight out of the Big Book of Terrible Endings threatens to derail the entire narrative. For a writing duo responsible for amongst many others The League of Gentlemen, and some of Derren Brown’s shows, you expect a much better ending than this.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t without its moments. Several weird fourth wall breaking elements work terrifically, and its settings, bouncing from abandoned caravan parks, to M.R. James-esque barren landscapes are perfect. Likewise, when the film actually tries to deliver an unsettling shot, it delivers. When Goodman arrives at Simon’s (Lawther) house, he spies Simon’s parents, stood together facing the wall, their backs to our investigator. It’s a perfectly creepy moment, and the shot that will linger with me the longest.
What a pity then that the remainder of the film is so forgettable.
REVIEW BY DANIEL CARPENTER
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