'Ghost Stories': Film Review | LFF 2017

GHOST STORIES Still 1-Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Warp Films
A classy, clammy compendium of vintage creepy thrills.

Martin Freeman co-stars in this British horror anthology, adapted from a hit London stage show.

First staged in Liverpool in 2010, the hit theater show Ghost Stories has so far enjoyed two long London runs plus detours to Toronto, Moscow, Sydney and beyond. Its multi-plot format pays homage to the golden age of portmanteau British horror films, from eerie Ealing Studios classics like Dead of Night to the campy low-budget shockers made by Amicus and Hammer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So there is a certain satisfying symmetry in seeing this affectionate celluloid facsimile finally reborn as a big-screen adaptation, which has just world-premiered at the London Film Festival.

Like its stage blueprint, Ghost Stories was written and directed by longtime friends Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. Nyman also plays a central role in an ensemble cast that includes Martin Freeman. Dyson is part of the U.K. comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, whose eponymous BBC television show paid similarly fond tribute to vintage Brit-horror movies. The humor is more muted here but still a key part of the tonal mix, which skews more towards knowingly creepy pastiche than hammy parody.

Ghost Stories is a witty and well-crafted love letter to old-school horror tropes. Even if some local British references may get lost in translation, the film still has solid readymade appeal to genre-friendly fans and festivals, with the added commercial kick of Freeman’s marquee name. Lionsgate has picked up U.K. rights, and Altitude is selling the film internationally.

In the background framing story, Nyman plays Professor Philip Goodman, a TV investigator who specializes in debunking supernatural delusions and psychic hoaxes. But an unsettling encounter with his childhood hero leads Goodman to three unsolved cases that test his scientific skepticism to breaking point.

In the first, an embittered nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) with a tragic family history suffers terrifying visions while guarding a derelict building once used as an asylum for female patients. In the second, a nervy young man (Alex Lawther) gets caught up in a nightmarish hit-and-run incident with a demonic beast in the depths of a misty forest. And the third stars Freeman as a wealthy ex-banker whose grand modernist mansion is invaded by poltergeists just as his heavily pregnant wife enters the late stages of a traumatic labor.

All three chapters contain button-pushing shocks and heart-pounding jump scares, but they are fairly mild by modern horror standards. However, Nyman and Dyson seed each story with cryptic motifs and cumulative clues that eventually bear fruit in the final act, when all of the main protagonists are revealed to be unreliable narrators. As the scattered jigsaw pieces come together, Nyman's paranormal detective experiences his own descent into Hell involving a shotgun suicide, lingering childhood guilt and mind-bending rips in the fabric of reality. The final explanatory twist is preposterous, but chilling all the same.

Nyman and Dyson have updated Ghost Stories for this screenplay, adding new subplots and layers, but they have not entirely eliminated some structural flaws. Most obviously, while creaky celluloid horror clichés feel like ingenious novelties in a live theater setting, they risk becoming clichés again once they migrate back to the big screen. Juicy questions about religious intolerance and anti-Semitism are fleetingly raised during the story, but never fully explored. And this may be a minor grumble, but it feels oddly tone-deaf to have an overwhelmingly white male cast in 2017, with not a single onscreen female speaking role.

Visually, Ghost Stories offers a masterclass in a very British kind of gothic drabness, its crumbling pubs and deserted seaside trailer parks painted in a wintry palette of nicotine browns, despondent greens and funereal grays. Mostly shot in Dyson’s native county of Yorkshire, this purgatorial backdrop is a key element of the film’s moody, melancholy charm. Subtle stylistic nods to classic thrillers including Sleuth, The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London are also agreeable audience-nudging details. There is much to savor here, however familiar the ingredients.

Production companies: Warp Films, Altitude Film Entertainment, Catalyst Global Media
Cast: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, Leonard Byrne
Directors-screenwriters: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Producers: Robin Gutch, Mark Herbert, Claire Jones
Cinematographer: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Editor: Billy Sneddon
Music: Haim Frank Ilfman
Production design: Grant Montgomery
Venue: London Film Festival
Sales company: Altitude Film Sales, London

98 minutes