This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
Third to feature is 2018 anthology horror Ghost Stories. Don’t believe the brain, it believes what it wants to see…
Many a trope and tradition are honoured in this stage to screen anthology horror from one quarter of the League of Gentlemen and the magician co-writer of Derren Brown’s greatest hits. Unsettling rather than all that scary, Ghost Stories is a blast from gnawing start to expected but well done finale.
Having had rip-roaring success with their make ‘em jump play, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s transition to film is largely seamless. This shouldn’t be so much of a surprise, given that both are screen familiar and their theatrical Ghost Stories was heavily inspired by the cinema in any case. Those Amicus portmanteaus of the sixties and seventies are most obviously in debt but film and play alike enjoy a set up that invites takings from a much longer legacy.
Adapted entirely by Dyson and Nyman, the film tweaks its theatrical origin slightly, in order to achieve a more integrated format, but retains the same themes, ideas and structure. Nyman reprises his role of Professor Philip Goodman, a professional psychic skeptic who has his own, very much earthly, demons to contend wit, and there’s a small part too for his stage co-star Nicholas Burns, here playing the very worst kind of hokum psychic: ‘my blood hurts mummy, my blood hurts’. As translations go, this is a tremendous effort and only very occasionally betrays its origins with the odd broader touch.
Linked by a central story arc – that’s easy to predict but well realised – the film functions as a traditional anthology feature. When Philip’s long lost hero, fellow dissenter Charles Cameron (Leonard Bryne), returns, sick and impoverished, it is only to announce that ‘it’s all true’. Philip is sent off to investigate the three supernatural cases that changed his idol’s mind and discover once and for all whether ghosts, demons and spirits are indeed real. His three subjects are Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman in a trio of fabulous performances, as a guilt-ridden retiree, skittish student and obnoxious financier respectively, and triptych of artful pastiche micro horrors.
Themes surface and images recur as each tells their tale, with a building sense of unease trickling through the cracks into Philip’s own world, which is only gradually exposed as being a touch off kilter. ‘We have to be so very careful,’ Philip declares early in the film, ‘of what we believe in’ and its sage advice for this variety of wrong footing script. Ghost Stories isn’t especially frightening, its few powerful jump scares are reserved for the final stretch, but there’s a quality to it that deeply rattles. It could be Frank Ilfman’s gnarly soundscape, or perhaps it’s the camerawork’s ability to make you feel like you are in the screen, via handheld shakes and point of view perspectives.
Much of the entertainment here descends from the filmmakers evident – here meaning inspired rather than imitative – love of the genre and desire to throw audiences into a fairground ride of fear. This is also a very funny film. In one early snippet, a demonic mother barks at a journalist that her adult daughter ‘fingered herself last night thinking about John Travolta’, whilst later in the film Lawther’s Simon responds to a devil commanding him to stay put with a mighty ‘f**k that!’
It may strike you that Ghost Stories is a decidedly masculine entity, because it is. However, in this case, male domination allows for surprising insight. For all the fun at Dyson and Nymon’s fair, note the way characters relate skepticism with machismo self-security. It is although it is a weakness for men to acknowledge the paranormal. For an hour and a half, this man did.