UK (2017) Dirs. Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman
“We have to be so very careful what we believe in”
A maxim we should all heed but likely, we never will. And as the film’s title suggests, this isn’t about religion though it does play a small part in the cynicism of the main character of this big screen adaptation of a stage play by Messrs Dyson and Nyman.
Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career from exposing debunking supernatural and paranormal occurrences, such as alleged mind readers and spiritualists. One day he gets a call from his hero, Charles Cameron, a TV paranormal investigator from the 1970s who was long thought dead. Now sickly and living in a caravan, Cameron hands a portfolio of three cases he couldn’t solve and as Goodman if he can before Cameron dies.
The first is night watchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), who during his shift one night, finds himself locked in a room with a creepy little girl. The next case is nervy teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), plagued with the fear that he ran over the devil whilst driving his father’s car. Finally, banker Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) suspects he is the victim of a poltergeist.
Having made his name as the fourth off-screen member of The League Of Gentlemen, the horror credentials of Jeremy Dyson will no doubt be known already to fans, though don’t expect to find any of their trademark dark humour here, this is serious stuff. Andy Nyman meanwhile is a magician and mentalist, as the long time collaborator of Derren Brown, as well an actor, getting to indulge in all of his interests with Ghost Stories.
Quite how this worked as a stage play I don’t know – I can only assume the film allowed for a wider scope of movement and sense of space, which they made great use of, whilst making many changes to the script to accommodate this. The first suggestion of this is the opening sequence which is a grain cine camera flashback to Goodman’s bar mitzvah to explain how his father tore his family apart when objecting to his daughter dating an Indian boy.
In the present day, Goodman is an author and professor of paranormal debunking with his own TV show exposing the fraud of psychics who claim to speak to deceased family members. Charles Cameron did the same 40 years earlier, inspiring Goodman to follow in his footsteps, the catalyst for his sceptical attitude coming from his father’s devout intransigence.
Cameron is a withered old man, ravaged by cancer yet his mind is still as sharp as ever. He actually doesn’t rate Goodman, thinking him as being too cynical and dogmatic about denouncing anything other than science and logic, but recognises his pugnacious search for truth therefore feels only Goodman can solve the three cases that have eluded him. All Cameron asks is that Goodman prove him wrong.
Because the initial questions Goodman asks are regarding the personal background of the claimants, he is already of the mind that whatever they saw, or thought they saw, was a psychological reaction to something in their lives. To wit, Tony is a hard drinking man racked with guilt over not visiting his daughter in hospital suffering from locked-in syndrome since his wife died. That his experience involves a little girl bears this theory out in Goodman’s mind.
Young Simon is obsessed with the occult, whilst his parents are cold and harsh towards him, leaving him a nervous wreck. He reveals to Goodman that he lied about passing his driving test to his parents out of fear, and was driving without a licence the night he ran over the devil. Simon was arguing over the phone with his father for being out so late when the accident occurred deep in the woods, then the car breaks down, all of which Goodman puts down to a fragile psychoses going into imagination overdrive.
For Mike Priddle, his poltergeist seems like coincidence as his hitherto infertile wife was in hospital with problems with the pregnancy at the time as the spooky happenings in the baby’s room took place for Priddle. This story has a tragic ending beyond whatever was tormenting Priddle leaving Goodman unable to draw a conclusion, other than to wonder if Cameron was teasing him over his own immutable beliefs.
Obviously, I won’t reveal what happens next, except to say expect the unexpected. The almighty twist that follows jolts the audience into realising that they should have been paying attention to the minutiae running across all three stories. During these individual cases, we are waiting for that one moment to lead us to the answer yet it never comes; now, we wait to find out what the new question is before wondering if we have the right pieces of the puzzle.
Nyman’s history as mentalist is put to good use in drawing the audience in to the world he and Dyson have created and believing everything they want us to before pulling the rug from under our feet. It’s subtle but effective allegory as well as subliminal audience participation, possibly explaining why the stage show was so popular and successful. In transferring this to the distance of the big (or small) screen the magic still works, down to the intelligence and ingenuity of the writing.
Supporting Nyman, well-known faces from British TV and film, like Paul Whitehouse and Martin Freeman, head a top notch and committed cast, the aforementioned pair stepping out of their usual comedic milieu to reveal another side to their talents. Whitehouse in particular taps into his ordinary Joe aura to make his scenes convincing.
As a horror film, the scares are deliberately traditional at first which may put off the gore hounds (of which there is none) but psychologically, Ghost Stories is a smart, uneasy, and wonderfully subversive experience in which the audience are totally and expertly played, whether they want to admit it or not. And you can believe me on that!