LFF 2017: Ghost Stories Review
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There is something so very comfortable about a British ghost story. Whether it’s M. R James’ vast body of work which for many years was adapted for the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, James Herbert, Susan Hill’s wonderful The Woman in Black, both on page or on stage, or one of Charles Dickens’ more moody pieces of work, it is something built into the cultural DNA of the country. Andy Nyman and The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson brought this out in their stage show Ghost Stories; a chilling experience that saw audiences being asked to “keep the secrets” of the show in order for others to go in as fresh as possible. The duo have brought their high spirits from stage to screen, but can something so viscerally atmospheric in person work with the safety of the screen in front of you?
Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman) has made a career of debunking claims of the supernatural. He believes in nothing but what he can see for himself. When he is asked to investigate three cases involving a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse), a young driver (Alex Lawther), and a businessman (Martin Freeman), he begins to experience things that challenge that worldview.
Belief is a tricky thing. What is it that makes people believe in ghosts, demons, and the supernatural? Is it that despite the terror of the unknown there is comfort in thinking that this life isn’t the only one we have? That those we lost may still reach out to us? It’s this kind of thing that Professor Goodman in his work takes away from people in the name of rationality, but the cases in the film examine that question of why and how someone might believe in what goes bump in the night. The visuals and atmosphere build wonderfully in these moments, earning those moments of shock in a way that cheap jump scares never do.
The film also goes into the nature of ghosts in a more symbolic sense; of the things in our past that can haunt us and take on a life of their own. Telling such a story can be difficult, but Nyman and Dyson blend these two things together wonderfully, bringing out a vibe that means that whilst the set-ups for each of the stories; an abandoned building, a lonely road, an empty house, are familiar, you never feel safe or comfortable. Everything is immersed in a feeling of “not quite right” with just the right amount of full, and in your face, scares peppered about. Added to that is a strong cast led by Nyman’s really great performance who are all natural but, again, slightly off.
This goes even further in the third act, twisting and surprising you in ways that you could not have seen coming at the beginning. It's a little disjointed at times, but in the way that a nightmare is. These guys clearly know what they’re doing and know their horror. There are clear moments that refer to that previously mentioned ghost story tradition, but also more recent references like a camera movement that is straight out of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. The film is full of so many little details, not only showing the filmmakers’ genre knowledge but also little things that link the three stories in small ways that really makes the piece more of a whole and also adds a fun rewatchability element.
Ghost Stories is an atmospheric and spooky love letter to the tradition of the ghost story, but one that also manages to twist and turn so that you can never feel safe with where it goes.