The idea that we make our own ghosts is a potent one. It’s the thread that runs throughout Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s new film, based on their hit stage play.
Opening at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, Ghost Stories was born out of love for the portmanteau horror films made by studios such as Amicus (Asylum, featuring Herbert Lom, Charlotte Rampling and a creepy mannequin, being one of the most famous).
The show was marketed as a theatrical thrill ride. It was 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 thrill-delivery, despite growing louder and more insistent across its various West End residencies, amping up the volume in its determination to make its audience shriek and squeal.
In the film, as in the original stage version stage, co-writer and director Nyman plays Philip Goodman, a professional debunker of the paranormal, who receives a mysterious communication from a fellow sceptic, a man he thought was dead, instructing him to investigate three cases that he thinks will make him question his belief that ghosts do not exist.
In the first of these stories, 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. It’s successful in part because of Whitehouse’s impeccably pitched performance as a man who has seen something he can’t unsee, but also because it’s the most tightly constructed of the three. The middle section is flimsy in comparison, something true of the stage show too, but Lawther’s performance as the nervy and fragile young man gives it weight. Freeman is also good as the emotionally closed-off banker, but there remains something distasteful about the way it uses childbirth as jump-scare fodder. (It doesn’t help that the film takes place in an otherwise woman-less world.)
The biggest shift is the way Goodman’s story has been beefed up. The lecture format of the stage show has been ditched and the character 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.
As with the recent remake of It, there’s an over-reliance on gruesome make-up effects in some scenes; the film is strongest when Nyman and Dyson embrace the cinematic potential of the source material. Each of the stories is grounded in a particular place, from a working men’s club stained with years of cigarette smoke to a sterile apartment reeking of privilege. There are also some gorgeous Yorkshire location shots.
Things get a bit Sam Raimi during the nocturnal forest scenes – in a good way – and horror fans will appreciate the references to everything from the Enfield Poltergeist to The Omen to Flatliners.
In addition to being an actor and writer, Nyman is also Derren Brown’s collaborator and Ghost Stories resembles one of Brown’s routines in the way that 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 the film builds to it, joining all its dots together, is creepily effective.