CHRIS NEWTON reviews the newly-released British horror anthology, Ghost Stories (2018) based on the theatrical hit of the same name…
In my review of the wonderfully disturbing League of Gentlemen Christmas Special, I commented on how heavily the episode was influenced by the Amicus portmanteau horrors of the 1970s. Three nightmarish tales all connected by a framing story, and an ending where all is not as it seems.
As an avid fan of both The League and Amicus, you can imagine my excitement when I heard about ‘Ghost Stories’ – a British anthology horror film co-written and directed by none other than Jeremy Dyson – the fourth Gentleman who, unlike Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss, remained firmly off-camera. (Although if you look closely you might just spot him at the Bar Mitzvah.)
An adaptation of their stage play of the same name, ‘Ghost Stories’ unites the talents of Dyson and Andy Nyman (most famous for his collaborations with illusionist Derren Brown), who also takes on the lead role of Professor Phillip Goodman, a celebrity sceptic whose life’s work is to debunk psychics and paranormal investigators.
Enter Goodman’s former idol in the field of myth-busting, who, in his old age, is haunted by the three cases – three ghost stories – he was unable to disprove, leading him to rethink his entire life’s work and question the existence of the supernatural, imploring Goodman to investigate these cases himself to see whether or not they challenge his unshakable belief that everything is always exactly as it seems.
In the lead up to the release of this film, I fastidiously avoided reviews and spoilers, but it was impossible to avoid catching a glimpse of the odd tweet, or quote on a poster or YouTube ad. They shared a sentiment: believe the hype. This was exactly what I didn’t want to hear. My expectations were too high. There was no way this film could be as good as I hoped, or as frightening as I feared.
‘Ghost Stories’ is masterfully made. It is obvious that its creators are fans of the genre. They’ve seen the classics, the cult classics that inspired them, and the lost classics that started it all. And they’ve been taking notes. Crucially, they understand fear. The most effective scares in this film are the simple ones; shots that linger too long on darkened hallways, stairwells, abandoned corridors, daring us to imagine what may lie beyond. The most chilling and ungodly scene in this film is just a shot of a mop. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
The first instalment stars Paul Whitehouse as Tony Mathews, the night watchman in an abandoned asylum. Goodman meets him one afternoon, already several pints in, in a depressing looking working men’s pub, The Tenth Number, to hear his story. If the pub sign strikes you as important, then you’re obviously paying close enough attention. Reminiscent of the portentous pub names in 2013’s The World’s End (also starring Martin Freeman), The Tenth Number has tarot card-esque significance and is the first of many clues and Easter eggs peppered throughout the film.
Visually reminiscent of 2004’s ‘Creep’, Tony’s tale is an aesthetic nightmare of abandoned decrepitude that uses darkness as effectively as props. You know when you’re alone in the dark and you start to worry that, just maybe, you’re not alone after all? This story captures that isolated paranoia perfectly, with Whitehouse selling the terror with an almost unbearable believability. As he shuffles down a pitch-black corridor toward a cell full of mannequins, he half-walks, half-shuffles toward the source of a mysterious noise with the kind of legs that are simultaneously trying to bravely investigate whilst also running away. This segment – and the film as a whole – makes heavy use of jump scares, which can often be a cheap trick, but they are perfectly timed and expertly delivered, no doubt thanks to Nyman’s background as a mentalist. He knows just how to manipulate us. “The brain sees what it wants to see.” We are told often throughout the film. It seems that Nyman and Dyson know exactly what we don’t want to see. And they show it to us.
The second story – starring Alex Lawther as Simon Riffkind – takes us from the subterranean terrors of the abandoned basement to some equally terrifying woods and has something of an ‘Evil Dead’ atmosphere. One shot in particular is an unabashed Rami-reference. Young Simon is driving home through the woods, in his dad’s car, without a licence, when he collides with Something. Anyone who has seen Lawther in ‘Black Mirror’ will know how intense a performance he can give. If at all possible, he actually turns it up a notch in ‘Ghost Stories’, and most of the horror in this second story comes solely from his tortured facial expressions. Although which is worse – his terror or is subsequent mania – is a matter of some debate.
Whilst terrifying, this section is also surprisingly hilarious. Just as ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and 2005’s ‘Funland’ (penned by Dyson and Simon Ashdown) tip-toed on a tightrope between comedy and horror, the laughs in ‘Ghost Stories’ are not parody, or satire, or spoof. They are genuine comedy, the punchlines as meticulously timed as the jump scares. (And you’ll never see Sooty and Sweep the same way again!) Rather than diluting the horror, the humour contextualises it, providing a welcome relief from the tension whilst simultaneously luring us into a false sense of security that maybe the next scene won’t be quite so scary. Maybe we can let our guard down…
The third story, in which Martin Freeman plays Mike Priddle, a wealthy banker and expectant father, drags the haunted nursery from the shadows of Victorian gloom and proves that, beneath the bright light of modernity, it is not even a little less frightening, and neither wealth nor technology can save the protagonist from pure evil.
And there we have our three tales. But what of Professor Goodman himself? I have endeavoured to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but the most interesting thing about this film is its’ ending, and it is impossible to discuss without spoiling. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d recommend you stop reading now.
As I mentioned – this film feels like something of a grandchild to the Amicus classics. Whilst stylistically different, it shares the DNA of those classics in its’ format. If you’ve seen ‘Tales from the Crypt’ or ‘Vault of Horror’, you’ll know that the story is always the same. A group of people in a spooky place, each with a guilty conscience and a terrible secret. Once the tales have been told, the truth is revealed. They are dead. Either on their way to hell, or there already, damned to relive their sins in perpetuity.
I wondered how ‘Ghost Stories’ would end. On the one hand – the aforementioned ending seemed virtually mandatory, yet at the same time far too predictable. Cleverly, it manages to give us something in-between. When Goodman returns to share his findings with his aged mentor, he tears off his face to reveal he is actually Mike Priddle. Or at least someone – or something – that looks like him. (My only criticism of the film is that Freeman is such a distinctive actor that this obvious from the very beginning, despite the prosthetics and Scottish accent.) The wall of his caravan is torn away as though it were a flimsy stage backdrop, and we are catapulted from the world of Amicus to something resembling Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ as Freeman leads us on a nightmarish tour of Goodman’s own subconscious. The mysterious numbers referenced throughout the three stories, the image of the tunnel on the pub sign, the constant presence of the hooded spectre which has stalked Goodman throughout are all finally explained. Visions of an incident which has plagued the professor since childhood, when he stood by and did nothing whilst a boy died, culminate in Goodman lying in a hospital bed.
In short, nothing we have just seen is real. Goodman is in a coma, and the three storytellers are a cleaner, an intern and a doctor respectively. Suddenly the premise at the heart of this film – logic versus superstition – becomes massively irrelevant. Just like the Amicus unfortunates, Goodman is most certainly in hell, and yet it is a hell entirely of his own creation, a hell explainable by science. He is a prisoner of his own guilt, and it is not God or Satan that is punishing Professor Goodman but his own mind.
So, are the ghosts real? Were the stories true? Does Goodman now believe in the paranormal? Does it even matter?
Ghosts might be real. They might not. But stories are real, and they’re basically the same thing. They are the pieces of us which linger after we have died. And they continue to haunt us long after they have happened.