Ghost Stories is a live stage experience, written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, that I am saddened to have never experienced. It was supposed to be quite terrifying, and I do enjoy being scared witless. Thankfully, although I have no idea how closely this adaptation sticks to the source material, I now have this film version to help contribute to my underwear laundry bill.
Having heard Nyman discuss the long road from stage to screen for this project, it seemed clear to me that the story was one full of classic horror movie genre tropes that everyone knew couldn't just be transferred back from the stage. What was intense and terrifying in a live production would just feel hokey and cliched when placed onscreen. Thankfully, that didn't stop them working hard until we ended up with this, a film that feels both very traditional and yet also, somehow, fresh and lively.
Nyman stars as Professor Goodman, a debunker of supernatural phenomena who is asked to investigate three cases that are believed to offer absolute proof of another world around us. Those three cases involve Paul Whitehouse as a night watchman encountering spookiness in an abandoned building, Alex Lawther as a teenager who regrets the choice of route on his late-night drive home, and Martin Freeman as a businessman who claims to have felt an evil presence in his own home while his pregnant partner was hospitalised.
Yes, essentially a portmanteau film (once the prime stomping ground of Amicus back in the heyday of British horror cinema), Ghost Stories manages to break the problems often associated with those films - a weak link here and there, pacing issues, building and sustaining tension - by weaving details, some subtle and some more obvious, throughout each tale, as well as the material bookending the film.
I always tell people, if I am forced to choose, that my favourite type of horror movie is a zombie movie. Put a zombie in it and I will watch it. Which means I have watched a LOT of awful zombie movies. But the only type of horror movie to really affect me is a good ghost film, and Ghost Stories is certainly a good ghost film. After a fairly light start to the proceedings, the atmosphere starts to build, and the frights start happening, in a way that reminded me of that classic horror story all about the house where nobody had ever survived the night. You know the one? It's a creepy little tale that builds to something quite intense, and this is the cinematic equivalent of that, although there are a multitude of other influences and nods, from The Turn Of The Screw to The Signal-Man.
But for anyone wondering if this would be TOO literary or stagey, or sedate, fear not. There are plenty of jump scares, some very sudden and some coming along as the required pay off to sequences of sustained tension unlike any I can think of in modern horror cinema. There are also some images that will, to use the technical term, freak you the fuck out. And the dread, don't forget the dread. It's the atmosphere of dread that makes the film almost unbearable at times though, seeping through almost every frame once things get going and never letting viewers relax, despite the very occasional moments of humour that provide a fleeting respite.
The writing and direction from Dyson and Nyman is fantastic, which you would expect from the two men who would surely have been so close to this material for many years already, but the performers also deserve praise. Nyman has always been a great presence onscreen, and turns in yet another great performance, but Whitehouse gives the kind of everyman performance necessary to drag viewers swiftly into the first fully-fledged segment of terror, young Lawther adds another great turn to his impressive roster of credits, and Freeman manages to twist his usual perceived happy-go-lucky demeanour into something, well, rather different.
A brilliant, heady brew of the classic and the modern, Ghost Stories is to be applauded for the way it gives fans what they want, even if they didn't realise what they wanted. It's smart, it's steeped in the history of the genre, it's bloody audacious at times (in ways that some might balk at), it freely mixes stylistic touches in whatever way best serves the narrative, it keeps drawing together the main connective tissue on the way to "the grand finale", and it's one of the scariest films I have watched in years.
Highly recommended, and I'll be very impressed if we see a better horror movie this year.
Ghost Stories is probably a while away from shiny disc form, but keep your eyes peeled for it when it gets a wider release (in cinemas and then in stores).