Film Review | Ghost Stories

Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s clever take on the horror anthology makes for a great time at the flicks. Shame about that third act, though • 3/5

Country roads: Andy Nyman and Martin Freeman in Ghost Stories
Country roads: Andy Nyman and Martin Freeman in Ghost Stories

Much has been made of how Netflix and other platforms of its ilk are ‘ruining’ the cinematic experience, as less and less people choose the multiplex as a default entertainment option in favour of consuming audio-visual material in the comfort of their own homes. There certainly appears to be some currency to that sentiment, with mainstream cinematic slots largely dedicated to over-budgeted corporate tentpoles like this week’s Avengers: Infinity War – itself propped up on a long and elaborate pedestal of interrelated corporate properties.

First shocked-back onto the scene as a potential industry revitaliser by that scion of spectacle, James Cameron, upon the release of his dramatically bereft but visually immersive spectacle Avatar (2009), the widespread adoption of 3D was something of an attempt to paper over the problem.

Never mind that most people hate it, and that the only real net result of its adoption at the best of times just leads to an annoyingly jacked-up ticket price (which should serve as a clue as to why it was really adopted in the first place). Strategically adopted as an occasional bit of technological spice, 3D can be a fun way of jacking-up the cinema experience if it’s attached to the right project. As a ‘fun house’ gimmick, it can work... but when the industry shoves it down your throat with little rhyme or reason, you’re bound to feel cheated.

Luckily not presented in mandated 3D and operating on a more genuine, home-grown pair of gimmicks, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, adapted from their own stage play of the same name, makes for a slice of quality fun entertainment at the cinema – one that actually begs to be seen with an audience.

Nyman himself plays Professor Philip Goodman who, largely owing to a stiflingly conservative Jewish upbringing, has dedicated his life to debunking paranormal quacks – claiming all the while to be motivated by a desire to show up these manipulative, exploitative charlatans for who they really are. But his mission is tested when his childhood inspiration – and unofficial television predecessor – Charles Cameron, gets in touch. Living out what looks to be his final days cooped up and sick in a caravan, Cameron challenges Philip to resolve three paranormal cases that have always evaded him... even causing him to make a U-turn on his total scepticism about the paranormal (“the mind sees what it wants to see” was always his mantra).

The three cases involve a night-watchman at a disused mental asylum (Paul Whitehouse), a young man grown obsessed with the occult after a disturbing accident (Alex Lawther) and a wealthy London financier haunted by a poltergeist (Martin Freeman).

Jeremy Dyson’s other claim to fame apart from the Ghost Stories stage show is his participation on the cult British TV series League of Gentlemen, which he co-wrote along with Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss. Though veering more closely to grotesque dark comedy than what’s on show here, the three seasons of ‘Gentlemen’ also showcased a love for old-school British folk horror, and its delivery in an anthology format in particular.

And that’s what works best about Ghost Stories – the
juggling between three self-contained narratives nested in a ‘mother story’. There’s a nice ‘three for the price of one’ feel to it all, with Nyman and Dyson showcasing both versatility and a respect for the genres that they are drawing from. Innovation is not the key here, but the performance of satisfying story tropes and modes, done well.

It’s a shame, then, that while each of the three stories is built with great verve and suspense, the frame story overplays its hand at the very end – undercutting rather than bolstering what could have been a superlative slice of pastiche.

The verdict

A sleek and stylish slice of old school horror for the most part, Ghost Stories is undercut by a third act that aims for cleverness but achieves nothing short of deflation in the end. Still, it’s certainly a ride worth taking, and along with A Quiet Place, it confirms that it’s perhaps horror – and not 3D gimmicks – that will save the cinema experience in the long run. Just like Krasinski’s crunch-and-you’ll-ruin-it chiller, this one aims to be experienced with an audience, as the suspenseful set-pieces are crafted for the perfect communal scare effect.