Ghost Stories (2017)
Adapting a stage play into a feature film can be a difficult task. If done poorly you’re left with a movie that feels stilted and confined due to its theatrically designed narrative. However, that is not the case with Ghost Stories, whose portmanteau format is inherently cinematic to begin with and has more than a whiff about it of the Amicus compendium horror movie from the seventies. Furthermore, the film adaptation provides even greater scope for genre references and homages to other classic supernatural movies. Director of photography Ole Bratt Birkeland creatively expands and embellishes the central story against a wider visual canvas. The shocks and scares are lovingly contrived, skilfully executed and genuinely unsettling. The film also maintains a very foreboding tone.
Co-writer and co-director, Andy Nyman, star’s as paranormal investigator (and debunker) Professor Phillip Goodman. After being informed of three potential cases that may well defy rational explanation, the Professor sets out to explore them further. The first incident involves a night watchman working in an old factory. The second focuses on a teenager whose car breaks down in a remote location and the last is about business man who is awaiting the birth of his child. Naturally the fourth story is the framing tale of Professor Goodman’s investigation which also serves as the films denouement. To say any more would be to give away the plot and spoil the film. Let it suffice to say that Ghost Stories exudes its horror pedigree and is littered with references to delight genre devotees.
Nyman and Dyson, direct assuredly and the movie maintains a measured pace. Performances are notably good, especially Paul Whithouse as the depressed and perturbed nightwatchman. He gives a very natural and credible performance as blue-collar worker struggling to rationalise his experience. Alex Lawther’s (Black Mirror: Shut Up and Dance) gives us a worryingly good turn as a man on the edge of hysteria. Perhaps it is the third story starring Martin Freeman that is the least thrilling. It’s not that this tale of a nursery-based poltergeist is lacking, but the fact it is used a segue into the final act, that robs it a little of its narrative power. However, the film boasts a suitably grimy production design with such locations as a decaying asylum, a distinctly down at heel working men's club and even the dreary childhood bedroom of one of our protagonists. There is also attention to detail to be found in each scene, from period wood cuts featuring the supernatural to the obligatory tomes and grimoires of the occult, lining bookshelves.
Ghost Stories, like many projects driven by those with a strong affinity to the genre and the influences of their youth, steers a fine line between homage and reference as well as fanboy adulation and cliché attribution. It’s is a bold and creative expansion of the stage play with sufficient difference for the broader visual medium of cinema. It successfully manages to scare, unsettle and bother the audience and in doing so, misdirect attention away from the slightly contrived framing story. It is also a welcome relief to experience genre cinema that hasn’t been exclusively tailor made and refined to fit a specific rating and appeal to a particular demographic. Ghost Stories is far from a gorefest but it is wonderfully creepy and atmospheric and makes no concessions to back pedal or make itself more appealing to wider audiences. It is scary, well-crafted and distinctly British. More please.