Adaptations of successful stage experiences to the silver screen are not always adept at capturing the magic of what drew people to the piece in a theatrical setting. The Woman in Black is probably the best example; widely regarded across the world as one of the most terrifying experiences an audience can have in a theatre, both of its cinematic versions retained for many a sense of atmosphere but lacked the potent dread and fear. The jury will be out as to whether the same is true of Ghost Stories.
Having never seen Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s original play performed on the West End stage, I shall refrain from drawing comparisons between the source material and its adaptation. That can be left for others who have had both experiences. As a piece of cinema, Ghost Stories does manage to capture a level of creeping, dreamlike enigma, shot through with not a little dash of the kind of jet black comedy Dyson added as part of The League of Gentlemen foursome – he was their Terry Gilliam, the unseen on screen writing partner, aside from a cameo – indeed you may spot him in Ghost Stories in a similar function if you’re eagle eyed. Ghost Stories is by no means as broad as the BBC comedy, and is first and foremost a dramatic tale, but there is an undercurrent of gallows humour to the piece which at times grounds it in a sense of normality, as it ventures into strange waters.
Ghost Stories on stage revolved around Professor Phillip Goodman, a parapsychologist who gave a lecture to the audience about three titular ghost stories which then subsequently play out on stage, alongside interviews with those who experienced the terrifying events. Nyman played the role on stage and steps into Goodman’s shoes here, but don’t be fooled into thinking he is some kind of arcane, Tales From the Crypt-style storyteller; this is a man raised under strict Jewish orthodoxy by a hard-line father, who grew up intending to debunk the paranormal and supernatural world linked to the religion he considers destroyed his family. Goodman gets a literal and spiritual journey, one Nyman has talked about being altered from the stage:
One day when we were sharing ideas I said to Jeremy, “How would it feel if suddenly out of the blue you got a letter from Stanley Kubrick saying everyone thinks I’m dead but I’m not and I really want to talk to you, I think your work is great, but I’m ill come and see me?” and that was just an idea that seemed to unlock the piece. Our producers had already rightly said to us, the problem with the lecture is that it is fine on stage as the audience can engage but they can’t in the cinema, there needed to be a narrative drama. What we found was that in giving Goodman a quest it allowed him a mental challenge, opened the door for him finding a mentor and really evolved that part of the story.
The film subsequently evokes a portmanteau-style narrative, of the kind Dyson especially has played with before in such work as the majestic League of Gentlemen Christmas Special, inspired by Dyson & Nyman’s own inspirations including Dario Argento, Nigel Kneale, all the way through the horror video nasties produced by a range of underground filmmakers. Ghost Stories also arguably owes quite the debt to Hammer Horror and the school of British chillers which crafted such memorable ghost stories on the BBC over the years; much like the narrative and conceptual ideas in the narrative itself, Ghost Stories is quite a bag of ideas rolling around to creative some kind of cohesive whole.
Each of the three central ‘ghost stories’ which Goodman investigates all tap into different, classic urban legends when it comes to traditional spooky tales passed down over the generations. Paul Whitehouse is the working class, everyman night watchman who encounters the spooky visage of a young girl in the ruins of a decayed mental institution for women; jittery, obsessive youth Alex Lawther (who really is making a name for himself with these kind of quasi-psychotic young man roles) facing a demonic creature when lost in the woods; or Martin Freeman’s swaggering, rich city boy who finds his slick, wealthy home inhabited by a poltergeist. You have seen similar stories before, both on screen and recounted off, but Ghost Stories doesn’t chart the course you might imagine.
It is a film, indeed, which rewards close observation. Dyson & Nyman layer in details which serve to pay off once we reach quite an unorthdox and haunting final act, where the picture takes a fascinating left turn. On the journey toward that, Goodman’s quest is grounded by a strong level of theme, primarily that of absent parenthood and traumatised childhood. Goodman himself is haunted by the ghosts of his past, of a father now a vegetable inside a nursing home, while the characters played by Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman all themselves have a connection to children and parents it would be unfair to delve into without seeing the film. What the writer-directors do well are connectives between each portmanteau and the driving, overarching journey of Goodman.
The film and the play are absolutely about that suffocating male bullshit and the different versions that takes and how crippling it is. Sexual politics are really difficult subjects to talk about because in some ways the further we progress, the more fucked up things seem to get because what our roles are – it’s such a smoosh it becomes very hard. If you look at male suicide rates, it’s horrific, it’s insane, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying the inability for men to open up, the inability to talk about their feelings, the inability to properly analyse what it is to be a man, it’s insane. This isn’t a film which is entirely about that but that’s certainly at its beating heart for sure and that’s something we hope people talk about.
You feel this most specifically with Lawther’s character as a young man utterly repressed by his middle-class surroundings, internalising a great deal of fear and pain while trying to explain the supernatural event which has haunted him. It’s there too in Whitehouse’s Tony, who battles against his own innate sense of ‘blokey’ male strength as Goodman tries to explore his emotional state; Freeman, too, hides behind his successful career, money and his flashy mobile phone, trying to cover his own terror at a truly harrowing experience he faced behind a wall of confidence. The fact there are no female characters across the entire picture is telling, or indeed the only time we do see a woman characterised, she is a grieving mother expressing a deep river of emotion Goodman nor any of the other male characters can reach. They’re too repressed in varying degrees.
Dyson & Nyman also quite impressively wear their influences from cinematic language on their sleeve without directly aping them, and successfully craft some genuinely unsettling moments; principally Whitehouse’s confrontation with the spectral menace he faces in the abandoned institution, and a quite harrowing flashback for Goodman to a tragic misdemeanour in his youth which is about as dark as the film gets. Their script is clever in how it all comes together, with moments evoking pictures such as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, even if they don’t *quite* manage to stick the landing with the emotional punch you sense they hoped to deliver.
Ghost Stories, nevertheless, is a fascinating little bag of ideas all swirling around to create a memorably unnerving and occasionally haunting British chiller. Dyson & Nyman had offers to make their adaptation in the States but they refused, wanting to tap into the British influences and settings to create a picture which could have been made in 1978 in some respects. It has an old-fashioned storytelling sensibility which makes it almost a curio in this day and age, unafraid to twist and turn toward an unexpected conclusion.
It’s a film worth supporting, at the very least because it’s great to see British pictures such as this being made.