Skeptical professor Phillip Goodman embarks on a trip to the terrifying after finding a file with details of three unexplained cases of apparitions
Written and directed by Andy Nyman (The Commuter, Severance) and Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen), Ghost Stories sees the duo bringing their critically lauded stage show to the big screen and in doing so, offering up a ghost story for the more cynical age and a horror for the atheist.
In the film’s opening, TV skeptic Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) crashes the stage of a well-known psychic currently in the process of ‘speaking to the dead’. Having established that the psychic is being fed information about his audience via earpiece, Phillip calls him out in front of the paying crowd. A win for rationalism for sure, but by publicly dismantling the scam Phillip ends up shattering the hopes of a grieving mother who was finding solace in the show. He’s cinematic equivalent of a Facebook atheist who just really needs to let Grandma Jones know that her husband is all kinds of worm food and she’s bloody foolish for even considering anything other than the here and now. This clashing of ideals and of needing to be right above all else, pretty much sums up the tone for the rest of the film.
Phillip is later approached by another skeptic, who also happens to be his childhood hero, and asked to look into three cases he has never been able rationalize: A night watchmen (Paul Whitehouse, The Death of Stalin) stalked by something in the darkness, a young man (Alex Lawther, End of the Fxxxxxx World) who runs over someone or something over in his car, and a businessman (Martin Freeman, Sherlock) haunted by the spirit of an unborn baby. If Phillip can explain them all away, then his childhood hero can die knowing that his life’s work of debunking the paranormal wasn’t for nothing.
This may sound like a straight forward portmanteau – think Robert Powell’s pursuit of the truth in the wraparound for Amicus’ Asylum – but there’s a lot more going under the hood. The world of Ghost Stories is a very white and male one. It’s one where fathers dominate, boys take their first steps into toxic masculinity and if there is blame to be had, it can be shifted elsewhere. It’s the perfect place for Phillip to wander through as he reads the riot act to any and all thoughts of there being some kind of afterlife. If anyone disagrees with you, it’s clearly just because they’re not as enlightened as you.
Packing away the thematic threads to one side, Ghost Stories offers up some good old fashioned scares. From jump scares to a fantastic use of score and silence, the co-directors have thrown together a compendium of chills. It takes a brave couple to mimic The Evil Dead and still manage to make it feel fresh, but Nyman and Dyson deliver. That said, regardless of these cinematic flourishes, the film’s origins as a stage play are noticeable. Particularly in the film’s final moments, which likely thrilled in the theater – where Nyman got to use his magician background to send a chill up his audience – whilst feeling limited on the big screen. And yet, whilst the ending may not completely land, it does work in underlining the film’s constant scrutiny of what it means to be righteous. In valley of the blind, the one-eyed man might be king, but it doesn’t mean he’s not a bastard.
Acting as the connective tissue that binds the trio of tales, Nyman is suitably glum and disparaging as he sets about shattering people’s beliefs. His pomposity being deflated only somewhat by his interactions with Freeman’s acerbic businessman. Whilst Freeman has long since left behind the days of The Office’s Tim, Whitehouse has never really been able to shed his sketch show roots. So, it’s great to see him branching out as the put upon, immigrant fearful watchman. Alongside The Death of Stalin, here’s hoping there’s going to be Whitehouse renaissance.
Grabbing your attention like a dead hand clutching at your throat and as comfortable as an ice-cold bath, Ghost Stories is one of the best films of 2018.