Ghost Stories Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Altitude Films
Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
2017, 98 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
UK cinema release on 6th April 2018
Andy Nyman as Professor Goodman
Martin Freeman as Mike Priddle
Paul Whitehouse as Tony Matthews
Alex Lawther as Simon Rifkind
Based on their legendarily scary stage play, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories finally gets the big screen adaptation that horror fans have been holding their breath for since it took to the footlights ten years ago. This it does with an all-star yet off-kilter cast, with Nyman in the lead, and Martin Freeman playing against type as an anti-Semitic toff. There’s Paul Whitehouse too, continuing to make amends for those horrible insurance adverts which so marred his post-Fast Show career, and young Alex Lawther, stealing the film from these old pros. Together they host a trio of spooky tales from which Nyman’s sceptic professor may never recover. Nor the audience, if Ghost Stories’ reputation is anything to go by.
The film’s stage roots are visible throughout, lending the film an unsettling sense of artificiality which consistently works in its favour. The pre-amble to many of its shocks are dialogue driven and wonderfully wordy, with each character given a distinctive voice, mannerisms and performance. Its old-fashioned, classical approach to horror extends beyond the portmanteau device to the rest of the film, channelling M.R James and the classics – even more so than the obvious Hammer House of Horror and Tales From the Crypt touchstones. There hasn’t been a mainstream genre film so talky since The Hateful Eight.
Unlike most portmanteau horror stories however, the triumvirate of tales here are secondary to the story which bookends it, and it’s professor Goodman’s emotional, spiritual and existential journey which is of most importance. By nature, the three stories he’s investigating are a little derivative, so it’s his own experiences which are the most surprising, exciting and unpredictable. One is glad to see Nyman be the one to play Goodman too, this underrated British actor at last getting a meaty leading role in a major horror film that you can see in cinemas and everything.
Sadly, there are few films so ill-suited to the Friday night multiplex experience as Ghost Stories. It’s deathly quiet at times, and filled with lengthy, hushed dialogue sequences. Unlike any Blumhouse ‘em up or modern supernatural rollercoaster as it is, many audiences may be unprepared for this particular breed of horror – beware, and expect smug laughter, dissatisfied mumbling and cinema walkouts. Never have I been aware of every single crinkled popcorn bag, bored munch or teenage cackle as I was watching Ghost Stories. It makes one long for the sanctity of the festival screening.
Viewed with the respect it deserves, one will note the carefully curated atmosphere of dread, and the film’s unsettling, creepy isolation of its characters. It’s inimitably British, in its subtle sense of humour and the astonishing gothic beauty of t’Yorkshire Dales. Dyson and Nyman take full advantage of their departure from the theatre; Ghost Stories is the best of both worlds, undeniably cinematic but with theatrical performances, dialogue and, in the film’s greatest “huh?” moment, segues. It’s never actually scary, but it’s masterfully creepy, mining tension from well-worn setups and deftly timed jump-scares and fake-outs.
As a celebration of British horror, it makes its small unoriginalities and recycled tropes work. Its recycling of ancient ideas and twists feels appropriate. The classics are classic for a reason, after all.