A paranormal sceptic and professional debunker, Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is tasked with explaining three paranormal encounters. As he travels the country to meet the three witnesses to the paranormal activity (Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman) he beings experiencing some inexplicable things himself. By the end of his journey he will be forced to readdress everything he thinks he knows about himself, the paranormal and the world he lives in.
Ghost Stories comes to us from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (adapting and directing this film of their stage play) and it does feel like a mix between The League of Gentleman and a Derren Brown special. The film is critical both of fake spiritualists and those who take too much glee in tearing down the supernatural. It also has a dark sense of humour and mischievous spirit.
The horror set pieces involve an abandoned hospital, a forest at night and a cold modern house. There is also excellent use of some of the grimmer aspects of modern Britain. A crumbling coastline, an abandoned amusement park, a creepy caravan site, these are spooky locations seldom utilised even by British horror films. The directors make good use of their settings to invoke an ominous atmosphere.
I was most impressed by Ghost Stories when it used psychological tricks to unnerve the audience. I feared initially that the horror of the film would consist of jump scares. However, the film has characters retread the same paths multiple times, subtly changing small details. It uses the expected conventions of shot construction to startle or disorientate the viewer. Using the camera’s focus and motion to offer glimpses of frightful images whilst keeping them obfuscated ensures the audience is always straining to see what is being kept from them, making them complicit in the scare.
Each of the performers takes their turn at being the terrified victim of the film’s myriad ghouls and acquit themselves well. Paul Whitehouse is a very talented actor, who rarely choses projects that allow him to demonstrate this. Here he plays a tired and heartbroken man whose experience has had a profound effect on the way treats others. He’s authentic. Alex Lawther has a marvellous nervous energy and Martin Freeman demonstrates great range as he undertakes the most demanding role of the three.
The film features a very surreal third acting culminating in a twist that is a little dissatisfying. It certainly left me asking questions, but perhaps the wrong ones. Any mediation on the nature of the supernatural or the merits of belief are maligned in favour of logistics.
Ghost Stories is a very entertaining horror film that offers intelligently engineered scares. The narrative is ambitious but may distract from the true purpose of the film. As with most horror films, the clearer things get the most disappointing they become. But the mystery is enthralling whilst it lasts.
3 / 5