An interesting thing can happen when a genre has been around long enough to acquire fans. When those fans turn professional and get involved in the genre, they can create great work which understands its very essence, precisely what makes it tick and where it might go wrong.
Read anything about Ghost Stories and you’ll realise that its makers, co-writers / directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, are devoted life-long horror film fans. They love its very bones and that’s clear in Ghost Stories, which is easily the most accomplished and impressive British horror film in decades.
Most obviously this is apparent in the film’s structure, which nods heavily towards the classic anthology / portmanteau movies made by Amicus Productions back in the day. In this instance, we follow Dr Phillip Goodman (played by Nyman), a celebrated debunker of supposedly supernatural occurrences. He’s investigating three particular cases which would appear to defy any attempt at explanation. What Goodman goes on to discover is –
Well. Here’s the thing. Ghost Stories started life as a hit stage play where audiences were asked upon leaving to keep the show’s secrets for others to discover. It may be harder for a film to aim to stay spoiler-free, particularly in this age of YouTube and social media, but it’s got to be worth trying. Suffice it to say that this is a film which works best if you know as little as possible about it beforehand.
Are there surprises in store, then? Oh heavens, yes. Dyson and Nyman know that the ‘bucket of gore’ school of OTT horror will always lag behind the careful use of atmosphere, dread and sudden moments of terror. There are images in Ghost Stories which will stay behind your eyelids when you blink for months after you’ve seen them. It means to scare the viewer, and it delivers this in spades. It’s far from being a string of ghost train ‘jumps’, though. There are unsettling ideas being examined here too, and it’s these which are likely to really linger in the mind. Frankly, you may as well leave the landing light on for the night right now.
There are also some brilliantly deployed glimpses of humour here. For example, one line of dialogue about John Travolta might haunt you in an entirely unexpected way. It’s bleak, yes. Rather like a rebooted M R James, visually it conjures up an evocative, eerie modern Britain out of social clubs, caravan parks, barren moors and seedy seafronts, finding something utterly petrifying lurking in the everyday. It’s not entirely relentless, though, and the lighter moments work perfectly.
What’s intriguing though is that several of the main players, such as Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse, are very much cast against type. This particular trick, a lack of warmth and laughs where you might normally expect to find them, has a very powerful effect.
In some quarters it’s being predicted that Ghost Stories could trigger a renaissance in the British horror film, and only time will tell if that will happen – and if other modern filmmakers are as adept with such material as Dyson and Nyman. For now, though, just appreciate this for what it is – an intelligent, original horror film which can stimulate your mind and jangle your nerves with the very best of them.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor