Ghostly, but could be ghostlier

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

I’ve finally had a chance to watch the movie Ghost Stories, which was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, had a cinematic release in the UK in April this year and went on sale last month on DVD.  I don’t think a new British horror film has been unveiled with such fanfare since The Woman in Black in 2012.  In Ghost Stories’ case, the hype came from the fact that it was based on a very successful stage play, also called Ghost Stories and also written by Dyson and Nyman, which ran in London from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015.   The play earned some breathless reviews from critics who claimed it was terrifying.  (That said, certain people whose opinions I respect, like the novelist Christopher Fowler and the film-writer Ben Bussey, weren’t impressed by it.)

 

I haven’t seen the play, but my expectations for the movie version of Ghost Stories were high because of the talent behind it.  Jeremy Dyson is an accomplished writer as well as a member of black-comedy specialists the League of Gentlemen.  Nyman is both an acclaimed stage magician and an actor who’s appeared in several things I really like: Charlie Brooker’s zombie satire Dead Set (2008) and two films directed by Chris Smith, Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010).

 

I was also interested in seeing Ghost Stories because it continues a long-standing British film tradition, the portmanteau horror movie – one that doesn’t consist of a single long, scary story but of several short, scary ones.  This tradition began in 1945 with Ealing Studios’ classic Dead of Night, consisting of five tales made by four different directors, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer; and it later flourished in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Amicus Productions, a company that churned out seven horror-anthology films between 1965 and 1974.  The bulk of the 31 tales in those seven Amicus movies were based either on the short fiction of horror writer Robert Bloch or on strips in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, which were published by EC Comics and had generated much notoriety in the 1950s.

 

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of those Amicus anthology movies.  There’s only one that I think is a bona fide classic, 1974’s From Beyond the Grave, and only two others, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt, both made in 1972, that I’d even put in the category of ‘enjoyable hokum’.  Their problem, apart from the fact that the quality of the stories in them varied wildly, was that the filmmakers were rarely able to tie the stories together with a framing device that made them seem believable.  Usually, that framing device brought together four or five strangers in a situation where they’d recount their pasts or have their futures predicted and it’d turn out that they’d fallen foul, or would fall foul, of some supernatural agency (usually as punishment for wrongdoing).  A typical example of this scenario is 1973’s Vault of Horror, where five men trapped in an underground chamber tell each other about recurrent nightmares they’ve had – nightmares that eventually prove to have really happened.  These involve a restaurant full of vampires, a housewife psychotically obsessed with neatness, a premature burial, some dabbling in voodoo and a deadly variation on the Indian rope trick.

 

In a world where people have spent lifetimes searching unsuccessfully for evidence that the supernatural exists, the idea that a group of strangers who’ve all had devastating supernatural experiences could just turn up together at the same time and place was stretching credibility more than a bit.  Even as a kid, when I saw those movies on late-night TV, I wondered to myself: wow, what are the odds?

 

Ghost Stories has as its linking device a person who’s utterly sceptical about the supernatural.  Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a paranormal investigator dedicated to exposing frauds who claim to have supernatural powers and prey on gullible people.  Partly, Goodman does this because he was inspired by a debunker called Charles Cameron, whose exposes were shown on TV when he was a boy.  But it’s clear he’s also reacting against the mysticism of religion, which in his boyhood was shoved down his throat by a strict Orthodox Jewish father.  One day Goodman is summoned to meet a now-elderly Cameron, who gives him details of three supposedly supernatural incidents that even he wasn’t able to explain.  He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them.  This leads us into Ghost Stories’ triptych of creepy tales, which are told to Goodman, as flashbacks, by their three unhappy protagonists.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The first case involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who was tormented by the ghost of a girl whilst doing his rounds in a building that was once a woman’s asylum.  The second involves a youth (Alex Lawther) who had a harrowing experience after running down a mysterious something in his car one night in the middle of some woods.  And the third involves a banker (Martin Freeman) who was troubled by a poltergeist while his wife was in childbirth.

 

Now I really liked the framing device here.  Unlike in those hokey old Amicus movies, the stories’ protagonists don’t just congregate by some mad coincidence in one place but Nyman’s character has to go and actively seek them out.  Also, the fact that he’s portrayed as such a hardened disbeliever at the start suggests that the film will try to make the events that follow appear as credible as possible.  But once the three stories get underway, the film begins to sag.  These aren’t self-contained stories with beginnings, middles and endings so much as brief, unexplained anecdotes.  Some weird stuff happens, it’s creepy, and then… that’s it.  I found this rather thin.

 

Worse, once Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman’s narratives are finished, the film still has a fair amount of running time left.  It spends this time trying to tie all the strands together.  Everything we’ve seen, it transpires, relates back to Goodman himself, to his own past experiences and current state of mind.  There’s even a section where the film goes off on a tangent and shows a particularly traumatic episode from Goodman’s childhood.  Thus, you start watching Ghost Stories expecting it to be like a triple-decker sandwich with the three stories providing the fillings in the three decks.  But in fact, they’re more like three currants in a big doughy bun – the dough being all the material about Goodman.  Which wasn’t what I’d really wanted to see.

 

The film closes with a twist that I found unsatisfying too.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it reminded me of the ending of another movie on Jeremy Dyson’s CV, the film version of the League of Gentlemen’s TV show, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005).

 

That said, the film creates a few wonderful frissons.  There’s a sequence where Goodman ascends a dark staircase to meet the Alex Lawther character and glimpses something that leaves the audience wondering, what the hell did we just see?  And a moment where Goodman and Martin Freeman’s character are seen walking along the horizon of a bleak moor, unaware that a spectral figure has loomed into view a little way behind them, calls to mind M.R. James’ chilling story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  But again, the stories are too brief and inconsequential to have much impact.

 

I know Dyson is a fan of and has probably been influenced by the ghost-story writer Robert Aickman, whose fiction was disquieting because it avoided giving explanations or neat denouements – in his writings, uncanny things happened without rhyme and reason and all the characters could do was experience them.  Though I doubt if the prim, conservative Aickman would appreciate the visual treatment that the stories get here, with flashy, modish jump-cuts and nods to contemporary Japanese horror cinema.

 

So I found myself disappointed by Ghost Stories, though that’s not because it’s a bad movie.  It has some memorable moments and it’s been made with considerable thought and skill.  But alas, it feels like a lesser version of the masterly, ultra-frightening horror film that it could have been.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films