By David Dent
Dyson and Nyman’s adaptation of their successful stage play of the same name positively drips dread and ennui. It’s a film version of reading one of those ghost story collections published by Pan or Fontana back in the 1970s: contemporary but with gothic touches, strangely quaint but with an undercurrent of pathos and terror which, like the ever present dampness of the film’s locations, gets under the skin.
The title is possibly an homage to Masaki Kobyashi’s 1964 portmanteau film Kwaidan – ‘Ghost Stories’ being the English translation of the word – and adopts a similar approach, albeit with a wraparound story almost stranger than those around which it entwines.
Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman) is a professional debunker of fake mediums. Raised in a strict family, he has learnt to be an unbeliever, despite being Jewish. Courtesy of a cassette tape delivered to his house, Goodman is led to a reclusive psychic investigator, Charles Cameron, living in an isolated caravan. Once there he is given a folder containing three case studies that Cameron feels may alter Goodman’s traditional sceptical stance.
The three stories told by each of the subjects – Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) – are slight, little more than brushstrokes of accounts, all geared towards a specific supernatural incident which in each case causes mental damage to the three men.
The success of Ghost Stories for me was not in its plot – the details of which I am unable to give away, but which I found the least satisfying part of the film – but in its characters. Nyman is well cast as Goodman, his hangdog looks and panda eyes a testament to a life not well lived. Glimpses into his childhood show a tortured and confused soul – the transition from boy to adult in the film is for once entirely believable, and his wrestling with his Jewish faith against his chosen profession provides an additional complexity.
Similarly the three case studies present equally bleak characters: Paul Whitehouse is a coiled spring of inner anger and confusion as a night watchman stalked by something in an abandoned women’s prison; Alex Lawther superb as a highly strung young man in a house full of spirits, who also encounters something spooky in the woods; and Martin Freeman as the smug businessman haunted by real life tragedy and a vengeful poltergeist.
The stories within stories are eventually resolved into a conclusion I found a little disappointing, mainly because it’s a device that’s been used many times before. But it didn’t really matter. What Ghost Stories gives viewers in feel, location and mood – particularly those of a certain age – is a passport back to some of the eerie touchstones of the 1970s, already well documented influences on Dyson and Nyman’s writing.
Public Information Films (Dark and Lonely Water in particular), The TV series Hammer House of Horror and the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas offerings are all clearly inspirations. As you would expect from the film’s writers, the pathos inherent in The League of Gentlemen series is also very prevalent. It’s a film of strong but hidden emotions, of words remaining unsaid and very English understatement.
You might come for the scares, but you’ll leave with the sadness.