• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Non-Review Review: Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories is an existential horror dramedy, and gets that unique cocktail to work much better than it really should.

Ghost Stories is adapted by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman from their stage play of the same name. The play premiered in Liverpool in 2010, to rave reviews. Interestingly, Dyson and Nyman worked hard to preserve the mystery and ambiguity around their production, publicising the show with shots of terrified reactions from the audience and asking those who had seen the film not to discuss its twists and turns with those people who had not. As such, Ghost Stories became something of a cult stage phenomenon.

Black mirror.

With this in mind, adapting a play like Ghost Stories to the big screen presents its share of challenges. Not only does a feature film demand more publicity and more conversation than a stage play, having a much higher profile and a much larger distribution mechanism, it also involves a delicate process of translation. Ghost Stories was a concept very firmly anchored in its format, wedded to the conventions of stage shows. Finding a way to preserve the heart of the play within the framework of a motion picture was always going to be tricky.

Ghost Stories works well, although it arguably works better as a psychological meditation on mankind’s relationship with the supernatural than as a horror anthology in its own right. Ghost Stories is a clever and canny piece of work, one undercut slightly by some clumsy narrative choices in the final act. Still, even in its weakest moments, Ghost Stories is a compelling and engaging little film.

Cue, card.

Superficially, Ghost Stories is structured as an anthology. Reprising his role from the stage play, Andy Nyman casts himself as Professor Phillip Goodman. Goodman is a man who has dedicated his life to disproving the existence of the supernatural, an urge that the opening sequence roots in a deeply troubled relationship with his father. Goodman is a reality television show host, who travels around the United Kingdom and exposes charlatans to the masses; those cynics who would exploit the public’s need to believe in the supernatural for their own ends.

Inevitably, as that set-up demands, Goodman finds himself drawn into something decidedly more mysterious and sinister than tacky stage seances. Confronting a dying old skeptic who finds himself drawn towards belief in the supernatural, Goodman is given three case files that the old man argues are conclusive proof of the existence of something beyond the mortal experience. “Prove me wrong,” the old man goads, and Goodman sets out to do just that. Of course, the matter is not quite as simple as Goodman first assumes it to be.

Cold reception.

Using this basic plot, Ghost Stories strings together a triptych of terror. Goodman meets the three people in the three case files and gets their stories. Tony Matthews is a former night watchman who claims to have had a horrific experience while working a shift at an abandoned psychiatric institution for women. Simon Rifkind had a demonic hit-and-run on a creepy road in the middle of nowhere. Mike Priddle received an uncanny visitation on his modernist property in the Yorkshire moors.

The three stories work well enough, and are effective to varying degrees. There are some minor tonal issues in shifting between the stories; the tale of Simon Rifkind is more overtly blackly comic than the tales either side, and the borderline absurdist framing device with Mike Priddle contrasts with the bleak horror of his own experiences. However, Ghost Stories manages to keep the stories reasonably well balanced, these transitions never seeming too jarring or surreal. Indeed, the wry touches add a great deal of flavour and nuance to what could easily be more conventional ghost stories.

The moor, the merrier.

However, the stories themselves are not the selling point for Ghost Stories. Indeed, most of the beats within these three stories are fairly stock horror movie conventions, occasionally playing as effective and affectionate pastiche. The stories themselves are effective, but none of the individual narratives feel inspired or creative. Instead, what elevates Ghost Story is the way in which it approaches these three horror stories. There is a sense that the stories themselves are not the point of the exercise, but instead an illustration of the film’s central interest.

From the opening scenes, Ghost Stories establishes itself as a question interested in the “why?” of the supernatural, as much as the “how?” After all, Goodman positions himself as an arch skeptic, an investigator who seeks to disprove the very notion of the supernatural by exposing it as a trick of the light. However, Ghost Stories digs deeper, pressing the audience to question the significance of these supernatural encounters as much as their plausibility. If these events had real and tangible impact on the lives of those who lived through them, does that not make them “real”, in a sense?

Baby on board.

It’s an interesting a meaty question, and one that powers Ghost Stories for most of its one-hundred minute runtime. Ghost Stories repeatedly suggests that these supernatural encounters are mere expressions of deep-seated anxiety and even guilt, the subconscious’ way of articulating dread or uncertainty. Indeed, more adult and sociological fears bubble through Ghost Stories; Tony Matthews mentions how he has been unemployed due to “immigration”, while Mike Priddle positions himself as “the prophet” for his skill navigating the financial markets.

Most obviously, though, Ghost Stories suggests that supernatural is really just an extended conversation with the self. It is the mind’s way of filling silence and emptiness. The characters are all isolated and alone when they encounter these forces at work. Indeed, they also seem to be entirely alone when Goodman visits them to take their account of these events. Shortly before Mike Priddle has his own horrific experience, he finds himself at home alone, separated from his family. The sound of a dripping faucet fills the house, taking on an outsized importance. Something bleeding through.

The hood ol’ days.

Indeed, Ghost Stories cannily shifts the burden of existential proof over the course of its runtime, from asking (and explaining) why someone might believe in the supernatural to questioning why someone might be so firmly invested in disproving and denying the existence of anything beyond the purely objective and rational. Ghost Stories might look like a horror anthology, but it gradually evolves into something closer to a surrealist psychodrama. It’s a fascinating transition to watch, and Dyson and Nyman deserve a great deal of credit

These thematic elements are the most effective aspect of Ghost Stories, a horror film that uses three very straightforward horror movie set-ups in order to ask very broad philosophical questions about mankind’s desire to fill the world with ghosts and demons. Indeed, the film escalates all of this quite effectively, cannily building its own internal sense of impending doom as Goodman delves deeper and deeper into the three tasks to which he has been set. It is a credit to Ghost Stories that most of its major revelations feel properly seeded and set-up, foreshadowed and prompted.

Kidding himself.

Ghost Stories manages most of its narrative developments quite well, the story moving in an organic and intriguing manner towards its climax. While Ghost Stories never quite tips its hand to the audience with regards to its major revelations, the film contains enough clever stylistic foreshadowing and veiled acknowledgements that they feel like logical progressions to the story being told rather than sharp left turns. Although there is a sense that the denouement might work better on stage than on screen, it still packs a punch.

That said, the climax of Ghost Stories suffers a little bit in its final twist. The plot’s final major development feels obvious and trite. The issue is not that the revelation is easy to guess within the context of the film, because Ghost Stories is canny enough to seed the idea thematically without articulating it explicitly via plot. The problem is that the ending feels like exactly the sort of development that is expected (or even demanded) in a piece of work like this. It is a plot twist that isn’t really a plot twist, because it is the most basic of plot twists for a film of this type.

Worth a shot.

Still, Ghost Stories works more often than not. There are some minor issues with the three individual stories that make up the film, with the stories seeming a little too archetypal and the tonal shifts occasionally a little too distracting. The film’s ending feels clumsy in concept, despite a deft execution. Nevertheless, Ghost Stories is a clever piece of work, a shrewd and sophisticated supernatural thriller, one willing to grapple with the existential underpinnings that form the basis of this entire genre. It’s a story worth listening to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: