I ‘ve always been a huge fan of portmanteau films—those made of up several self-contained stories, often with some kind of linking narrative—and within that genre, my favorites often touch on horror and/or the supernatural. In my books, the 1945 British film Dead of Night reigns supreme in this genre, but I also enjoy lesser efforts like the 2015 Canadian film A Christmas Horror Story. The new portmanteau horror film Ghost Stories, now available on VoD, won’t displace Dead of Night in my affections, but it is a well-made film that provides the expected horror scares along with enough psychological complexity so it will stay with you long after the end credits have run.
Ghost Stories was written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, with Nyman also playing the lead character, professor Philip Goodman, who has made a career out of debunking phony psychics. As a child, he idolized Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a TV personality who gained fame as a debunker only to disappear from public life at the height of his popularity. Some years later, Nyman’s character is contacted by his childhood hero and given a file containing information about three cases which, he is told are the reason for Cameron’s abrupt retirement—they convinced him that the supernatural is real.
Goodman sets out to investigate each of the cases—a night watchman (a delightfully surly Paul Whitehouse) who saw and heard something terrifying in the factory where he works, a nervous and somewhat weird teenager (Alex Lawther) who was nearly scared out of his wits while driving home from a party, and a self-assured retired businessman (Martin Freeman), whose home experienced some inexplicable visitations during his wife’s pregnancy. The linking narrative involves Goodman meeting the people involved in each story, and investigating the version of events each presents to him (he seems more like a journalist than a professor in these endeavors), then the stories are presented as self-contained flashbacks without reference to him.
Going in, I didn’t know that Ghost Stories is adapted from a play written by Dyson and Nyman that was nominated for two Olivier Awards (a rough British equivalent to the Tony Awards). There are some bits that might be even more effective on stage (transformations are always more impressive then done in real time), it works perfectly well as a film, with all the expected tricks of the trade expertly executed. Special kudos go to cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and production designer Grant Montgomery, as well as the writer/directors, who together create a real sense of place for each story (one takes place in a deserted factory, one in a dark forest, and one alternates between the wide-open moors and within a shiny modernist house).
Despite the variety of settings, a sense of gloom and doom is pervasive, with hardly a ray of sunlight to be found anywhere. Another thing scarcely to be found in this film are female characters, and at the very least you have to give Dyson and Nyman credit for picking a lane and sticking to it. It’s easy enough to read this film as a criticism of a rationalist male culture (sport shooting is even included in one story) in which it is better to pretend everything is OK and that everything can be explained, rather than to allow yourself the actual messiness of the world. Goodman’s character is explored over the course of the film, beginning with his difficult childhood in a religious household, and the psychological twists and turns in these stories will stick with you long after you’ve forgotten the jump scares. | Sarah Boslaugh