If there’s one thing I wish I did more, it’s seeing more live entertainment. I don’t necessarily mean music, although I do want to see more of that too, I mostly mean comedy nights and, more relevantly, theatre. I often hear of weird, quirky and interesting productions being put on somewhere in the West End, but unless it’s bizarre enough to make me sit up and take notice (read: Toxic Avenger: The Musical), it never sticks in my head long enough to go and buy a ticket.
This struck me the other day as I expressed my excitement to a colleague that I was going to see Ghost Stories (2018), only knowing that it was a British horror movie co-written by Jeremy Dyson of The League Of Gentlemen fame. “Oh yeah? I went to see the stage play of that in the West End,” says he, sparking off some furious Googling to see if it was true. Sure enough, it was. Having now seen the film, I’m not sure I can find to words to express quite how jealous I am without offending him, his family, or the herd of goats he rode in on.
It’s safe to say that I absolutely bloody loved Ghost Stories.
I know what I saw.
Co-directed and co-written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories introduces us to Professor Goodman (Nyman), a television personality who aims to debunk paranormal conspiracies and fraudsters at the cost of his love and social life. His life of skepticism is revealed to be caused by a taut and stressful family life, and his childhood idolisation of a famed 1970s paranormal investigator Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), who himself mysteriously vanished many years ago.
Except, he didn’t. Well. Not exactly. After his latest show, ruining a fraudulent psychic while he is live on stage, Goodman receives an odd package containing a photograph of an old, infirm man holding today’s newspaper and a cassette tape. Retrieving a tape player from the bottom of an ancient box, Goodman, to his surprise, finds that it is the voice of Charles Cameron – and he wants to meet.
Giddy at the prospect of meeting his hero, Goodman shoots off to find Cameron, who he finds in a run down old static caravan. Inside, he comes face to face with his hero, who is clearly an extremely unwell man. Goodman tries his best to be polite, but Cameron brushes it off and gets to business. He has seen Goodman’s work, and, like the work of his youth, hates it, calling it arrogant, cynical and narrow minded. Cameron regrets his disrespectful attitude as a younger man, and tells Goodman that he is making the exact same mistakes.
However, Cameron is still desperate for truth. Throwing a dossier into Goodman’s hands, Cameron demands Goodman investigate the three cases inside – cases that Cameron could never debunk. Shaken by his childhood hero’s attitude, Goodman accepts the task, and staggers out into the cold where he watches a pair of idiot kids play on the beach.
The first case is based on the testimony of Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman whose wife died from cancer some years before, and whose daughter is suffering from locked-in syndrome – which is a form of waking coma. After some coaxing, Tony reveals the truly dark and disturbing details of one particular shift in an old abandoned women’s asylum.
I’m going to avoid spoilers here, so I will try and keep things brief. I will, however, say that Ghost Stories really doesn’t hold back with tis first story. This is a tale that will leave you feeling uncomfortable, isolated and absolutely on the edge of your seat. The sight of a swaying shape on a bed is something that I could not take my eyes off. Holy. Shit.
The second investigation is on a young man by the name of Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a disturbed individual who, in Goodman’s opinion, is on the verge of psychosis. Kept isolated from his parents, Simon lives from his bedroom – an overly stuffy room with virtually every inch of wall covered in different drawings and artistic impressions of the Devil. Desperate for help, Simon stammers out the story of a night where, while distractedly speaking to his angry parents on the phone after a late night party, Simon hits some form of creature deep in the woods – only for the car to break down no more than a couple of hundred metres beyond.
This. Is. Fucking. Awesome.
Everything about this section of the film feels made for me. Visually, there is a classic Hitchcock vibe, or at the very least, a Tales From The Crypt episode emulating some classic horror. It is darkly funny, creepy and I loved every second of it. There’s even a handful of shots in here that I have put in my own horror shorts, so perhaps I’m bias. Never-the-less, this story alone makes me love Ghost Stories. The fact an earlier section made me openly weep with suppressed laughter is a bonus.
Seriously. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much. Please watch this film so I can tell you why!
But anyway, the third tale soon sets us back on track with the tale of Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a city stockbroker who meets with Goodman deep in the English countryside. Here, Mike relays the tale of one night when his wife was kept in hospital during a particularly troublesome birth. During the night, Mike becomes aware of a presence in the home relating to the unborn baby’s room and belongings.
Of the three, this story feels the most obvious, though it is the surrounding details that truly set your heart racing. Mentions of the baby’s birth, and the image of a humanoid shape beneath the baby’s blanket is enough to inspire nightmare’s in even the sturdiest of audiences.
It’s around here that the investigation truly gets going. As Goodman’s journey inspires him to reflect on his own life, soon the overlapping details begin to make more and more sense. What starts as a simple anthology escalates into a new realm of mindfuckery and terror, and just as you start to think you know what’s going on – you don’t.
It’s funny, isn’t it? How it’s always the last key that unlocks everything.
As with all anthology stories, this is a hard one to truly review without spoiling things. Goodman, though an observer for the most part, binds the tales together with his own opinion and distaste for his surroundings, but remains charming throughout. This is a bit part to do with Andy Nyman’s performance, who is infinitely watchable. Whatever is happening, you can rely on his presence on screen to keep the audience engaged and, frankly, hooked.
In fact, every performance here is exceptional and delightedly over the top. This is probably something to do with the story being a stage play first, and movie second. Paul Whitehouse shows his dramatic chops without ever straying too far from his comedy roots, while Martin Freeman delivers a massive range of emotions that you would expect of him. The real star, as you might have guessed by my earlier review, is Alex Lawther. This guy never fails.
Frank Ilfman’s soundtrack, too, provides a thick atmospheric feeling that never fails to set the tone of the scene and can, in one track, make your spine shudder and roll you right into the next scene. I can’t wait to get my hands on this album – and you can guarantee it will make an appearance at a future spooky Halloween themed evening in the near future.
While I know that it’s quite reductive to compare Jeremy Dyson’s work to his League Of Gentlemen peers, I have to say that there is some huge overlap between their recent work and his. Ghost Stories is like the darkest moments of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No. 9 all rolled into one. It noticeably shares more than a handful of common influences. If you like one, I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy the other.
What else can I say? Ghost Stories is a genuine masterpiece of British horror. If I had to find fault, it would have been nice to have had an actress in the mix somewhere, and there is perhaps a slight over-reliance on cheap jump scares, when the atmosphere alone is enough to terrify. However, if this means that more casual audiences to horror will get invested and enjoy themselves then this is absolutely fine by me. This is a genre in a golden age, but this proves that Hollywood isn’t the only place in the world delivering mainstream terror.
I know what I said the other day, but I was wrong. If you’re going to go and watch a film, forget A Quiet Place (2018), make Ghost Stories your first choice.
Yours, A P Tyler