Ghost Stories

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ghost Stories
"When it's not busy trying to impress, the film conjures up a lot of atmosphere and succeeds in disturbing."

Since their heyday in the mid 20th Century, horror anthologies have ticked along in the background, continuing to attract devoted genre fans on home viewing media but rarely breaking through onto the big screen. Ghost Stories is attracting a lot more attention, for two reasons. Firstly, it's the creation of popular stage magician Andy Nyman and League Of Gentlemen alumnus Jeremy Dyson. Secondly, it's adapted from their hit stage production, which means it comes to the screen with a built-in audience which has high expectations.

If you're a fan of Nyman or Dyson's work, you'll find a lot of the same spirit here, for all that the humour is rather darker and the focus more on generating chills. There's the same determination to outwit the audience and the same affection for the more downbeat aspects of life in northern England. In this case, the setting is Yorkshire, where Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman), who has garnered some celebrity through his debunking of supposed supernatural phenomena, is contacted out of the blue by his one time idol, now himself something of a ghost of the man he was. Goodman impatiently listens to a tale about a crisis of faith brought on by three inexplicable spooky occurrences, and he is then invited - nay, begged - to investigate them himself.

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Thus the film sets up its meta-plot. The three stories are ostensibly fairly simple. A nightwatchman sees something disturbing in the old abandoned psychiatric hospital he's looking after. A youth on a late night drive is startled by something among the trees. And a smarmy investment banker is haunted by the poltergeist spirit of his unborn child. But the devil's in the details. Little coincidences crop up in each case, small things that remind Goodman of his own life. By invoking the natural human bias toward seeing patterns whether they're real or not, Dyson and Nyman draw their protagonist into the same kind of second-guessing he's belittled in others - and into the same kind of crisis of faith as his predecessor.

There's something going on here that's actually quite sophisticated, so it's a shame that the pair them proceed to try and raise the stakes with a series of inversions and revelations that add twists without contributing much in the way of intellectual substance. This may well have proven more satisfactory on stage where, after all, one expects a bit of theatricality, but on the screen it comes across as being clever for the sake of it and depletes the real impact of the film. Interesting themes around Goodman's Jewish upbringing and the anti-Semitism he's encountered are discarded in favour of a focus on parlour tricks, and even the bleakness of the ending can't quite reel it all back in.

Nyman is more impressive as an actor, pulling off occasional moments of despair that manage to be moving despite their pithily artificial context. Martin Freeman does his usual thing, dialled up a few notches in a manner again better suited to theatre, but no doubt his fans will love it. Alex Lawther is a standout in the middle segment, giving a slender and frankly rather silly story more impact than it deserves through his ability to communicate fear. When it's not busy trying to impress, the film conjures up a lot of atmosphere and succeeds in disturbing.

Though it feels, overall, as if it ought to have been better, Ghost Stories can't be faulted for ambition. One can only hope that it paves the way for other genre anthologies to get the big screen treatment they deserve.



Ghost Stories is being released in the US by IFC Midnight on 20 April.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2018
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