Review: Ghost Stories (2017/18)

ghost stories

Dead stylish for a stroll on the moors: Warp Films/Altitude Film Entertainment

From SIN CITY to WILD TALES at the movies and INSIDE NUMBER 9 on TV, I do like a good anthology piece. Alas, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED and THE TWILIGHT ZONE were before my time, so perhaps I need to dedicate some serious YouTube time to catching up. Presenting a collection of stories as such inspires creativity and thinking outside the box, and GHOST STORIES thinks outside the box in order to try and scare the bejesus out of us.

A paranormal skeptic (Andy Nyman) interviews three witnesses and investigates their stories of terrifying supernatural encounters. But what do the experiences of a nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse), a teenage boy (Alex Lawther) and a rich businessman (Martin Freeman) have in common?

There’s a mundane answer to all these creepy goings on (if you don’t like fun) but any real explanation is kept entertainingly illusive. To start with it’s all very ALAN PARTRIDGE, but before long reality, mock or not, gives way to the eerie. I’m much more of a fan of the supernatural tormentor using spirits from throughout time to punish a guilty man take than the “it was all in his head” theory. Ether way you’re reading it, the repeated motifs and clues sprinkled throughout draw you in and keep you guessing.

The first story is an old fashioned one of a guy in a creepy place who goes looking for scary things in the dark armed with a temperamental torch. Here the ghosts, as is traditional, work better in the darkness so keep turning the lights out and mess around with the radio to make Whitehouse’s nightwatchman brick himself. The second one is odder and more self aware, leaving its creepiest aspects unexplained but following a lead who, though unstable, knows exactly what happens to you if you don’t leg it and lock the door (Lawther’s nervy, unstable introvert is a definite highlight). The final one upends everything and makes you reconsider everything you’ve just seen in a new context and lets Freeman play perhaps the most interesting role of his career.

It was a lot subtler a horror than I was expecting, the echoing drip of water against pitch blackness that opens it perhaps the only thing that really made me shudder. Of course there’s jump scares (audio and visual) but they tend to be done in-camera like the rest of the effects, popping in midway through an extended camera move or just strolling into shot only veiled by the time-honoured and strategically deployed shallow focus. This worked for me as a horror, the creeping dread and oppressive mood to it (similar to something like IT FOLLOWS) though I’m not sure it’ll be to everyone’s taste.

I’m always a bit more compelled by indie films made in my neck of the woods, and Nyman and Dyson have selected their locations around Yorkshire (eerie woods, imposing moorland and scarily empty working men’s clubs). Who’d have thought the vast cellars of a world heritage site attraction would make such a good stand-in for an abandoned asylum?

Co-author Jeremy Dyson, of course, is one quarter of The League of Gentlemen, and some of the gags, from slightly pervy ghosts to one character feeding something revolting to an unseen, likely deformed baby, are very Royston Vasey.

The question I always come back to with horror films is is it scary? With Ghost Stories I have to conclude the answer is “sort-of”. Mostly it’s more creepy than frightening, the ideas making you shudder after the credits more so than the imagery. I’d be interested to see how it compares to the stage play it adapts (also by Dyson and Nyman) but as a calling card for their future filmmaking careers, it’s certainly promising, certainly its own twisted, mischievous thing. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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