ghost stories review
© Warp Films / Altitude / Lionsgate

Ghost Stories

2017
Dir: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman 

Tales from the Triptych

Case 1: History

The tiny sub-genre of the anthology or ‘portmanteau’ horror enjoys a unique status in the story of British film. Adored by its aficionados …but never taken seriously. Looked down upon, even. How could a compilation of short, separate stories amount to any cinematic significance? Its roots stretch back to a diversion taken by Ealing Studios at the end of World War 2, away from its established comedy fare, and down a much darker avenue with the brilliant, pulse-quickening quartet Dead of Night (1945). But the form was to peak much later, in the seventies, on the tail end of the Brit-horror boom heralded by Hammer. It was a cheerfully cheap and schlocky way to cram in more star names, and promise more thrills. And maybe to allow a few more risks with some decidedly dodgy set-ups. ‘Hey! If you don’t like this story, there’ll be another one along in a minute!’ was the underlying fail-safe. But it was Hammer’s rival Amicus Studios who made it their own, with a gaudier, seedier, more modern take on the tired gothic styling of their precursor. Though perhaps more dated to today’s eyes, theirs are the remembered classics of the genre, mixing chills with tongue-in-cheek daftness, topped with such wonderfully trashy titles as The House that Dripped Blood (1971) and From Beyond the Grave (1974).

Case 2: Premise

Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is a psychology professor, dedicated to debunking and exposing charlatan psychics. Notably, it’s a recurring theme explored by Nyman’s long-time collaborator Derren Brown (who offers his own seal of approval with a minute vocal cameo). Goodman infiltrates these fraudsters’ shows and exposes their fakery, in front of their own audiences for maximum impact. It’s his life’s obsession to prove that the supernatural simply does not, cannot exist. And that anyone who purports to be in touch with ‘the other side’ is exploiting the fears, moreover the finances, of the vulnerable. But then a former idol of his, a man long disappeared and presumed dead, gets in touch. A legend of the sceptic field, he’s alive and well after all, and he has something urgent to impart. He demands Goodman research three cases he could never solve, three cases that shook his certainty to the core. “Investigate these, and then tell me the paranormal doesn’t exist…” And so, with his unshakeable confidence assured, Goodman visits the ‘survivors’ of these strange phenomena. Paul Whitehouse is The Nightwatchman, a man traumatised by things that literally went bump in the night in his warehouse. Alex Lawther is the desperately anxious new driver who decided to take a shortcut home through the woods one night. And finally, we meet businessman Martin Freeman, who was left, when his wife died during childbirth, bringing up baby on his …own? It’s fair to say that none of these episodes have a happy ending.

Case 3: Conclusion

A resurrection of Nyman and Dyson’s highly inventive theatre production from a few years back, Ghost Stories is revived into the most refreshingly original British horror flick for some time. Its triumph is to revisit the largely forgotten sub-culture of the portmanteau, paying tribute to the format, but delivering much more than a straight compendium assortment. Each individual tale enjoyably satisfies the popcorn jumps and scares expected by the contemporary audience, doubtless making a few millennials splutter on their over-elaborate movie-house snacks. But the way it unites all three strands is an inspired thesis that goes beyond the familiar tropes of shock cinema, into territory that has the power to genuinely unsettle. Despite being presented within a rollicking fun-filled package, which it most certainly is, it also taps into fears that could lie dormant in a great number of us.

Forget the actual ‘ghosts’ within the stories of this spooky selection box, for you might find a spirit lurking deeper within that haunts you long after the mischief is concluded and the credits have rolled. Ace.

★ ★ ★ ★ ½

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