“The brain sees what it wants to see” is the refrain Professor Goodman clings to whenever he faces the inexplicable. Unsurprisingly his rational worldview is called into question time and again in Ghost Stories – a smart, haunting, and relentlessly inventive collection of supernatural tales.
Adapted from the successful West End play by Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, Ghost Stories not only revives but elevates the old horror movie format of the portmanteau. Long synonymous with Britain’s second horror studio Amicus, the form typically draws together four or five short horror tales within a framing narrative.
Ghost Stories focuses on three tales of the unexplained, with the protagonist of each recounting their uncanny experience to Nyman’s sceptic Professor. To go into the set-up and specifics of each story would be to defang them, but each one has its own charms and plays with a different aspect of the supernatural. It starts with suspenseful and terrorising (Paul Whitehouse’s opening segment), then pivots into something utterly bonkers and satanic (Alex Lawther’s middle section), before concluding with Martin Freeman’s melancholic and eerie closer. The performances are wonderful throughout, with each actor carrying their individual segments brilliantly.
Confronted with these stories Professor Goodman desperately searches for a rational explanation – “the brain sees what it wants to see” – but it’s a position that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Unlike those old Amicus movies, the framing device here isn’t a conceit to draw together disparate tales – it’s something much more considered and satisfying. Goodman becomes far more embroiled than the Crypt Keeper ever was.
While Ghost Stories is, strictly speaking, Nyman and Dyson’s first horror movie, their varied careers have shown a deep love and knowledge of the genre, and that lifetime of obsession seeps into every aspect of this movie.
At a technical level, you can feel its directors gleefully trying their hands at every type of scare. Some of its best scenes rely upon cinematic sleight-of-hand – moments where you’re shown something unsettling but only fleetingly, left to ponder over what you just saw or half-saw. It creates a gnawing uncertainty, an effect born from the kind of ambiguity few contemporary horror films choose to wield.
Another great example is how Freeman’s tale makes use of the horror of the unseen, its ethereal climax recalls Jonathan Miller’s famous adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You – the ghostly presence is implied, but in a way that only heightens its impact. That said, there’s something deeply mischievous about Ghost Stories, too – so while it maintains a gentlemanly approach in eliciting its scares for the most part, it’s not above letting rip and throwing something grotesque up on screen.
But below the technical achievements, you can sense this awareness of tradition in the stories themselves. There’s something deeply British about these tales that alludes to a lifetime of patient and perverse study. These are stories that take place by the seaside and woodland, in the stalls of a cathedral, on moors, and along train tracks – the settings of some of the greatest English ghost stories. Similarly, the banal and supernatural combine to create powerful uncanny effects – there’s something deeply sinister about glimpsing the supernatural when it’s illuminated by the red brake light of a Volvo.