Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)
Director: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Cast: Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther
Synopsis: Contacted by a childhood hero long thought dead, parapsychologist Professor Phillip Goodman is tasked with investigating three cases which upend Goodman’s life work of debunking the supernatural.
Horror films cleave into two types. The majority are a sequence of bumps and scares whose power recede when the lights return and credits roll. The rarer breed are the tales which unsettle, where the barrier between film and reality melts and the viewer is gnawed by the feeling that the monster is hunting them too. Ghost Stories is a potent hybrid of the two types. Despite watching the original play eight years ago, my past experience with Ghost Stories provided little protection. The stories unfolded to the same pattern but I again became the frightened teenager who realised, as the monster edged ever closer, that his stomach for ghost stories began and ended with M.R.James. A week after Ghost Stories I froze upon a darkened landing transfixed, just like Professor Goodman, that something was waiting for me in the pitch black.
From setting to scares, Ghost Stories is a loving homage to the adaptations of M.R.James’ tales from the 1960’s and the 1970’s. Filmed entirely in Yorkshire, Ghost Stories’ rugged moors and vacantly bleak coastline share the same English landscape which exude M.R.James’ tales. Professor Goodman’s journey through the empty countryside in his antiquated convertible mirrors the insipid other-worldliness of A Ghost Story for Christmas. Stronger nods to M.R.James pepper the plot; bed sheets form into a monster matching Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, and just like A Warning To The Curious, not even the observer is safe. Atop the streak of M.R.James pervading Ghost Stories are the ideas of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. The pair have taken the classic ghost story and infused it with modernity, creating something far more personal and psychological. The three stories in Ghost Stories are interlaced by the guilt of inaction, and the monsters themselves become a negative imprint of their unfortunate victims. Once Ghost Stories arrives at its hidden destination, Dyson’s and Nyman’s twist becomes a revolution, churning all that was grounded and true into a subjective jumble of questions that warrant watching the film again.
The best testament I can give to Dyson’s and Nyman’s debut as film directors is that the camera never feels present. Once Professor Goodman stops talking to the fourth wall the viewer could easily be his assistant, equally plunged into the strangeness and terror of the film. Unlike the stage version which used the whole set, the camera in Ghost Stories can be restrictive, pressing viewer to confront both witness and monster alike. The only visual drawback for Ghost Stories are the monsters themselves, who lose their effect once placed into plain sight.
Dyson and Nyman are matched by the excellence of Ghost Stories’ cast. Talking at a Q&A session for the film at Home Manchester, Dyson discussed the eight year journey from the play to the film. Dyson said that they needed an international star to receive financing and luckily Martin Freeman joined the film. Besides Freeman are Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther as the trio recollecting their stories to Professor Goodman, and they all excel in their roles. Whitehouse steals the limelight for playing a character radically different to his usual comedic personas. All three lend much needed comedy at times while Nyman is as good as ever as Professor Goodman. Goodman has transitioned from observer in the play to a far more human character. Goodman’s arc leads to a looping narrative which hopefully a second viewing will explain.
Thank you to Jeremy Dyson for attending the Q&A at Home Manchester and answering my question about what parts of him were in the film.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: