Adapted for the big screen from their own long-running stage play, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s film stars Nyman as Philip Goodman, a professor who has dedicated his life to debunking mediums, psychics and spiritualists and he is soon summoned to meet his boyhood hero, a popular psychologist presumed deceased who did the same kind of work, but is shocked to discover that he now believes in the supernatural and challenges Goodman to decipher three unsolvable cases in order to change his sceptical ways. Goodman goes on to hear the mysterious tales from the three subjects (Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman) but finds himself haunted by a mysterious hooded figure and a horrific childhood incident that he must face up to.
As the title would suggest, most of this film consists of three ghost stories, as told by three different characters who experienced potentially supernatural or paranormal activity, and the tales are ideal cinematic representations of the kinds of ghost stories that you’d tell each other in the schoolyard – stories that take place in an abandoned institution, a dark forest and a large empty house and primarily involve objects being moved around, Poltergeist style and characters wandering around, reacting to weird noises. While this may all sound obvious and unimaginative, the tales are told with such style and it’s clear that Nyman and Dyson perfectly understand the aesthetics of classic ghost story films, admirably establishing the characters beforehand and then going on to create an unpredictable, menacing, slow burn horror atmosphere, using both silence and music when needed and using lighting and colour to create the ideal mood.
But while this is all well and good, you may wonder if it’s all actually going anywhere, whether the film has any deeper meaning other than just telling a few ghost stories, all three of which seem to end without closure, ending them abruptly without explaining how the characters escape their predicaments. Fear not though because the three creepy tales are only half the story and, with the help of plenty of clever clues hidden within the pivotal tales, the third act turns the film on its head in an incredibly weird and unpredictable way as the real purpose of the film is revealed, with the main character having to face up to an incident from his own past; thankfully, the three tales are all put into perspective by the finale. It’s at the end where Ghost Stories introduces some League of Gentlemen inspired horror/macabre moments and if you’re familiar with the work of the League of Gentlemen, you’ll surely be expecting it to end on a big twist and here, it sure does. The final revelation may not be the most exciting thing ever put to film, but it does bring the film to a satisfying conclusion and it confidently ties up most of the loose ends, though there may also be certain things that will prompt questions and conversations when the film has finished.
Ghost Stories has a solid British cast who make the most of what’s been given to them and at the centre of it all, Andy Nyman is a solid lead, appearing believably stoic and unwavering in his beliefs at the start while later on descending into madness as he finds himself haunted by things that he cannot control. Nyman is a long time collaborator of Derren Brown (who himself puts in a very brief appearance – as a female voice on a radio, of all things) so he’s clearly at ease with the paranormal/supernatural elements of the story and having co-created the original stage play with Jeremy Dyson, he plainly knows the material off by heart, fitting the central role like a glove. And in the supporting roles of the three “narrators” of the central ghost stories, Paul Whitehouse effectively branches out into horror, retaining his “tough cockney” persona whilst also admirably throwing himself into the chills and uncertainties of his “abandoned hospital” story, Martin Freeman is mysterious and often sinister as the rich landowner who’s not all that he seems, and fresh from Black Mirror and Howard’s End, the wonderful Alex Lawther is brilliantly unhinged, disturbed and jittery as the young man who breaks down in the woods, providing the film with most of its dark comedy.
So overall, Ghost Stories is a most unique film that successfully builds up an atmosphere of dread, uncertainty and chills with its central ghost stories and shakes up proceedings as it moves into its endgame. For a period of time, it looks like it’s in danger of ultimately disappointing, of not going anywhere despite its style, but the confident and clever writing, as well as the solidly rehearsed direction, ensures that Ghost Stories is a film with a few neat tricks up its sleeve.