Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories is almost the scariest movies you will ever see. I watched it alone one night, sleeping girlfriend on my right and (thankfully sleeping) infant son on my left, and it nearly drove me insane with fear. I kept pausing and switching over to an episode of The Office, only to come back and watch a few more minutes. My notes were profanity-laden outbursts of existential dread that bordered on hysteria. Why did this film scare me so badly in the first two acts, yet left others completely unimpressed? I attribute it to two different things.
First of all, the film is based on the stage play of the same name, which was also written and directed by Nyman and Dyson. It follows Nyman, who plays paranormal debunker Professor Goodman, as he is brought to the trailer of his childhood hero and fellow debunker Charles Cameron. In his decrepit trailer, Cameron gives Goodman three cases that he was unable to disprove. He begs Goodman to prove him wrong because, apparently, death is coming and he wants to know that there is nothing on the other side waiting for him. This set up drives Goodman forward to meet the night watchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a terrified teen named Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a powerful businessman. Each has their own horrifying story to tell Goodman, and he tries his best to debunk each of them, even as he begins to become unraveled himself.
“Because I have come to one inescapable conclusion, and that is the supernatural, the unseen forces that surround us, everything that you and I have spent a lifetime trying to debunk and disprove, it’s all true.
Every last bit of it”- Charles Cameron
This structure is very stage-like and lends itself nicely to this anthology format. The stories are all separate, yet they have interlocking themes that are tied together in the third act. The viewer has no time to relax, because not only are we following these characters into the hell they each experienced, but Goodman begins to see apparitions in between the tellings. Each story is fresh and filled with both jump-scares and atmospheric dread, and this dread can be directly attributed to the claustrophobic feel of the settings. It’s true that these stories sometimes feel too staged, like they are being acted out on the West End in London, but I love the feel that it lent the film. This is especially true with the first tale of the nightwatchman Tony as he stands guard in an abandoned women’s mental hospital. We are stuck in those dark, dank hallways as something toys with the poor man, almost begging him to come investigate.
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Even when we are out in the gorgeous Yorkshire countryside, the film feels claustrophobic. We know what the structure is before we even start the movie, and it doesn’t deviate until its final 15 minutes. We are prisoners to this three-story plan, and it propels us forward, whether we want it to or not. Some critics have found fault in this part of the film, and their points are valid. Sometimes it does feel like we are watching a play, but for me, it worked to add a sense of claustrophobic dread that would have been difficult to attain otherwise.
The second reason that I think Ghost Stories was so effective is because each story overflows with not only the paranormal, but also family drama. Tony’s story centers around his inability to see his daughter who is in hospital with Locked-in Syndrome. He hasn’t been to see her in five years, which makes the “dada” the spirit utters in the dark sanitarium even more powerful. The young Mr. Rifkind’s story is the silliest of the three, following his exploits after running over some sort of devil in his car. The true horror from that section of the film comes from the behavior of his parents. They are the scariest aspects of the tale, and you never even see their faces. Mystery and devils surround Simon in his sweltering room, and we are stuck in there with him. Mike’s tale is filled with baby-dread, as well, as his nursery is plagued by the spirit of his wife as she dies giving birth to a monstrosity that only eats wet cat food. As the diapers fly and the bottles begin to stack themselves, you almost giggle at the absurdity. Until the cries begin, and the mobile turns, and the crib begins to creak.
“Do you believe in evil, Professor? I didn’t. Not until that night.”- Mike Priddle
The only downfall in this film is the final 15 minutes where everything is brought together and tied into a tidy little package. Many critics really like the twist that comes, but to me it felt like something that I have seen before. It is definitely done well, it is beautiful and has a few cringe-worthy moments, but it was a let down compared to the three stories that the rest of the film is based on. It isn’t enough to keep me away from watching the film again, however, and the change of pace, while a bit of a letdown, was refreshing after the anxiety-inducing first two acts.
Maybe being a new father has made me weak, but the normal, every day non-ghostly dangers that surround my son terrify me. There is so much out there in this world that seems heel-bent to knife its way into my family and tear it apart. These Ghost Stories take that fear and turn it up to eleven. Even when you have all of your bases covered, even when you have everything figured out, there are still things out there scratching to get in. The darkness that fills the screen for each of these tales is the darkness that we see every day out of the corner of our eye. It’s the gaping black hole of the kitchen window as you come down for a drink of water in the middle of the night. We survive by not looking directly at the darkness. We survive by pretending it isn’t there. Ghost Stories uses its structure and drama to force us to look into the darkness, where we finally can see the things looking back at us.
Ghost Stories is available everywhere on VOD Friday, April 20th. Do yourself a favor and check this one out. It is not the scariest film you will ever see, but it will make you feel some of the dread that you try to ignore in your real life. Be sure to follow Nightmare on Film Street on all of our social media platforms and by joining our Facebook Group, Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street. Head over there after you see Ghost Stories and let us know what you think!