Ghost Stories as a movie finds itself in a sticky predicament. The play, also written and directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman is presented as an investigation, partly this paranormal investigator looking over the most mysterious cases of his life, but also an investigation into horror tropes. It’s particularly concerning older horror flicks I guess, those from the sixties and seventies, the B movies and the things that calcified into tropes over that period say about us as a people.
It’s divided largely into three episodes Andy Nyman’s character is confronted by a past idol of his and, unlike in the play, we witness his investigation first hand, flashing on back when his subjects start to tell their stories. Paul Whitehouse is a retired night watchman who got spooked at the old abandoned asylum. Alex Lawther is a nervy teen who encounters something demonic on a late night in the woods. Martin Freeman is a broker, so successful he is nicknamed ‘the profit’ by his coworkers, who starts seeing things around his house on the eve of his child’s birth.
On stage, experiencing these events as a kind of memory play gives you distance. They’re presented as re-enactments while the recorded audio of an interview plays. You are invited as an audience to approach the recollections with a critical eye, stand alongside the investigator as he wrestles with the nature of reality. In a film though, it’s hard to escape the reality that is presented to you onscreen. It’s not that the stories themselves are particularly poorly told but we’ve seen them all before by this point, they aren’t gifted any greater meaning in their translation.
There’s also notes of the construction presented here that would lend themselves more kindly to the stage. The directors have this wonderful ability to construct tension in the obsessive detailing of space. However, when it chooses to break its own rules for effect, elide space and time to horrify it never quite overcomes the breath provided by the cut. There’s some wonderful, I assume practical, work in here but it is always undermined by a camera quite too interested in performing the mechanics rather than the mystery.
There’s also a character who turns up wearing some very obvious and bad prosthetics. You try to forgive things like that but when it’s trying to hide one of the big twists behind a very, very obvious mask y’all gotta fault it.
Not so surprisingly the best part of the film lies in the lead performances. Nyman arrives with the necessary blend of curiosity and ego required to keep the character always slightly at arm’s length. Freeman and Lawther are, as we have come to expect right now, perfect and brilliant. Paul Whitehouse is a British comedian, he’s done some film work before but most of his career since the nineties has been in television sketch work, mostly in collaboration with Harry Enfield. This is the first dramatic work I’ve ever seen him in and his work is fucking revelatory.
Like, he gets almost by far the most time afforded to him, he has some of the most detailed character work to land in his scenes with the interviewer, and then carries off this basically wordless horror skit with near physical perfection as the character shuffles and stumbles his way about. It is important to note that all three haunting victims are played by accomplished comedy actors, this is not a moribund or an overly heavy film, these folks have a tremendous play with their material.
It’s why without fail the interviews that happen are by measures more engaging than the shorts accompanying them. These characters get a chance to emote against a recognisable human being. They get the chance to explain first hand what paranoia and terror has done to their lives, hell the work achieved in constructing Alex Lawther’s shadowy, collapsing suburban townhouse is my favourite section of the film.
Because they have this way of photographing even those moments that should read as safe with these weird unbalanced framings. They’ll throw a character right off to the side of the screen. Their lenses will be a little too wide and push in a little too close. Colour will slowly drain from a place after sitting there for a while. They are always figuring out how to displace you, keep you on guard if only a step behind.
They mostly do as well through the sequence of twists that propels you along to the conclusion. It’s not a bad ending by any means, it’s just sort of an expected one. Like, it’s a very early 2000s play type ending, there’s another contemporary play I love by Anthony Neilson which has the same twist. It’s just obvious enough once you get there and really wants to tie everything up super clean. When it does so all those weirdo strange elements that it got going for it are ironed out, you realise it is a product both straighter and more boring than it appears to be.
That final scene, possibly notably, is carried out in a set with only three walls. It’s not actually a single take but almost may as well be one. I dunno, some comment possibly about how the work found definition as a play but is awkward when transposed to film, the only way to resolve it to its contradictions to reduce it down to something staged, something that can be more deliberately delivered.
There’s some wonderful parts to this joint, but it has been too fractured in adaptation for it to remain a cohesive whole.
Ghost Stories is currently screening in UK cinemas