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Ghost Stories review – ‘effective and creepy film of the hit stage show’

Martin Freeman in Ghost Stories
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The idea that we make our own ghosts, that they are the product of guilt and shame, is a potent one and one that runs throughout Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s new film, based on their hit stage play.

Originally opening at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, Ghost Stories was born out of love for portmanteau horror films made by studios such as Amicus (Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood). It was marketed as a theatrical thrill ride, guaranteed to make you scream; those of a nervous disposition were advised to “think very seriously before attending”. In truth, it was only ever patchily successful in this regard, though it grew louder and more insistent over its various West End residencies.

As on stage, Nyman plays Philip Goodman, a professional debunker of the paranormal. He receives a communication from a fellow sceptic, long missing and presumed dead, who instructs him to investigate three cases that he thinks will make him question the ideas he lives by.

In the first of these, a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) working the graveyard shift at a former mental institution has a terrifying encounter. In the second, a teenager (Alex Lawther) recounts a traumatic encounter while driving without a licence and, in the third, an obnoxious banker (Martin Freeman) describes his visitation by what he believes to be a poltergeist.

As was the case on stage, the first story is the most effective by far, both because of Whitehouse’s impeccably pitched performance and because it’s the most tightly constructed of the three. The middle section remains flimsy, but Lawther’s performance as the nervy and fragile young man gives it weight. Freeman is also good as the emotionally closed-off banker, even though there is still something distasteful about the trauma surrounding childbirth being used as jump-scare fodder. (The film takes place in an otherwise woman-less world.)

The biggest change is the way that Goodman’s story has been beefed up. The lecture format has been ditched and he is given a more developed backstory in the form of an overbearing Jewish father. There is also a more nuanced exploration of the nature of belief, care of a cameo from Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as a priest.

Some of the scares are lifted wholesale from the stage version in a way that doesn’t always translate and there’s an over-reliance on gruesome make-up effects. The film is stronger when it embraces the cinematic potential of the material. There are some wonderful interiors, a working men’s club stained with years of cigarette smoke and a sterile apartment reeking of privilege, as well as some gorgeous Yorkshire location shots. Things get a bit Sam Raimi during the nocturnal forest scenes and there references to everything from the Enfield Poltergeist to The Omen to Flatliners.

Nyman is Derren Brown’s co-writer and here, just as in one of Brown’s routines, seemingly insignificant details are gradually revealed to be part of a larger narrative. While the big twist takes the form of a well-worn trope of the genre, the way it builds to it, joining all the dots together, is still pretty impressive.

 

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Verdict
Creepily effective film version of the hit stage show that’s at its best when it embraces the full cinematic potential of the material
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