Ghost Stories Review
There are some adaptations that can never escape their stage play origins, the words struggling to escape the distant echo left reverberating around the theatre walls. Yet, while some verbose dramas fail to make the transition it's extremely rare to find any other genre given the big screen treatment (not taking into account musicals).
Horror is probably the perfect example of that. The Woman In Black is an almost one-of-a-kind example of a horror theatre show and was eventually turned into a middling big screen version. Now we have Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's Ghost Stories which has also made the leap from the theatre to cinema.
Attempting to evoke the spirit of the Amicus horror films from the 60s and 70s, which in turn were inspired by Ealing Studio's 1945 classic Dead Of Night anthology, Ghost Stories has appeared in numerous theatres around the world since 2010. In order to prepare it for the cinematic version, Nyman and Dyson have added an extra 20 minutes along with one or two other ideas not previously seen on stage.
At its heart the trilogy of ghost stories remain the same, all of which are investigated by a paranormal sceptic played by Nyman himself. He is Professor Philip Goodman, a man famous for exposing supernatural fraudsters. As a child he was inspired by the work of his hero, Charles Cameron, who suddenly vanished in the 70s at the height of his investigative fame.
The appearance of a mysterious cassette tape unexpectedly leads the Professor to the door of Cameron's grotty coastal caravan where the old man challenges Goodman to investigate three stories that appear to have converted him into a believer. He visits each one in turn, listening to their ghostly flashbacks which he attempts to rationally explain. First up is nightwatchman Tony (played by the always excellent Paul Whitehouse), followed by nervous teenager Simon (Alex Lawther) and finally arrogant ex-city trader Mike (Martin Freeman). With the passing of each story Goodman’s own insecurities and fears slowly come to the surface and add to his growing sense of unease.
While you can see Nyman and Dyson clearly have a love for traditional British horror there is one, quite significant problem that affects their film: it's about as scary as a bed full of teddy bears. And the humour doesn't fare much better either.
A succession of cheap jump scares quickly set out the type of ‘horror’ the film has in store for the audience, with an atmosphere that is just as thin and weightless. Jump scares in themselves aren’t an issue, provided they are used as part of wider mosaic of scare tactics. They have existed in horror films almost as long as you care to remember - a quick look back at Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942) or even Psycho (1960), both stand out as perfect examples.
In recent years it has become a common trick lazily used by countless directors to shake people out of their seats. Once the jolt has disappeared from your system it's easy enough to shake off. But the ability to play on someone's fears and to linger in the mind takes real craft, which is why horror is such a specialist genre to successfully master.
Any semblance of dread Ghost Stories attempts to build is thrown under the bus each and every time a jump scare or monstrous face is pushed into the camera. After a while you can only laugh at how unbelievably daft and hollow the horror antics become. The settings all seem to be there – a dark industrial basement, a misty English wood and a creepy nursery room – but nothing worthwhile is done to unearth the possibilities they present.
Things only get worse in the final act where a twist ending attempts to tie everything together in a ridiculous fashion. Goodman’s childhood memories return to haunt him and there is something else about bullying, anti-Semitism and the relationship with his father. Such little time is spent developing these ideas in the first two acts that by the time his past becomes the focus of the story it barely merits a second thought.
Perhaps Nyman and Dyson’s stage show does a better job of evoking a sense of terror within the confines of a theatre. If scare jumps are all you need to enjoy a horror film, then you won’t be disappointed. For anyone searching for something more chilling, Ghost Stories won’t be playing in your mind when it’s time to turn the lights out at night.