Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Review: Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories
Cert: 15 / 98 mins / Dir. Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman / Trailer

Well it's not often I get to walk out of a horror movie, excited by how much I loved it and just glad to be back in the light of the foyer. To do this twice in one week seems unheard of*1.

Ghost Stories is an anthology-format feature film from Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, adapted from their stage play of the same name. In it, Nyman plays Professor Phillip Goodman, a paranormal investigator who specialises in debunking claims of the supernatural and exposing charlatans on the 'stage medium' circuit. When he's called to a dilapidated caravan park in Yorkshire by Charles Cameron, a retired debunker and one of Phillip's similarly-minded idols, our hero is presented with three 'unsolved' cases. Speaking with the originators of each experience, Goodman slowly realises that something connects their inexplicable stories, and that link may be closer to home than he likes...

Now on paper, this should be a pretty standard affair. Although titled Ghost Stories, this is, make no bones about it, a horror film*2. With segments taking place in an abandoned asylum and a car which breaks down in the woods at night, it's not so much that the film is 'textbook' in its approach, more that this is a lesson being taught with that textbook.

The nested storytelling is like an Inception of the macabre, beginning with urban decay, slamming doors and an escalating sense of suffocation. The third tale in Goodman's investigation goes to the windswept moors and a spacious, empty nursery, changing gears with unfettered agoraphobia, reminding the characters and audience alike that they're not safe anywhere*3.

Ghost Stories is, quite frankly, terrifying. Gleefully sadistic in its scares, even though it's a celebration of well-used mechanics in the genre. For the seasoned horror fan, the film acts as its own challenge to the cynical, as we become Goodman, the skeptic being preached to from all sides on the importance of belief, but still stubbornly waiting to be scared by the ride.

The roots as a stage-performance are evident throughout, but this adds to the intensity of the piece. Nyman and Dyson understand on a fundamental level that having someone hear strange noises in a derelict building isn't scary. Horror lies more in fear of the unknown than the reveal (which is why you generally don't show the monster in a first act), but to convey that sense of utter dread, the viewer needs to relate to the character experiencing it. Enter Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther, separately recounting their supernatural encounters and assuring the twitching audience that they'd fare no better in the same situations. The performances all-round are an acting masterclass. Martin Freeman is also in the film.

Each story seems to end without a definitive payoff (other than the knowledge that the teller of each tale survived to relay it to the interviewer), but it's all wrapped up in the finale. Ghost Stories' pulling together of the threads is magnificent. Again, there's little actual twist in 'the twist' if you're sitting second-guessing, but the storytelling follows the rules of the genre with absolute distinction.

These are the creative fruits of the tree watered with Hammer House of Horror and books that we were too scared to open*4. A movie which knows the key difference between telling its audience when to be frightened, and just frightening its audience.

Ghost Stories is masterful. As someone who has seen enough mediocre horror to have become thoroughly bored with the genre, I can give this no higher recommendation...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Tales Of The Unexpected, The League of Gentlemen and, oddly enough, Mindhorn.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
All of the above.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It could well be.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
We wouldn't disagree about this because you'll love it, too.
Won't you

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: That Canto Bight jail guard is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 I'm afraid I don't really categorise my reviews by genre, so it's more than the work of a few clicks to backtrack and find out, I'm afraid. As regular readers will be aware, I'm as harshly critical on horror as I am comedy (each having a very specific brief), so I know for a fact that me liking two horror flicks within the same half of a year is unusual, never mind in the same week... [ BACK ]

*2 Back in August, I told Mrs Blackout (who doesn't like horror movies) she'd love A Ghost Story as it's not a horror but an actual story about ghosts. Ghost Stories, on the other hand, is co-helmed by Jeremy Dyson, whose televisual and literary work she enjoys, yet she'd make it about seven minutes into this film before having to leave the room... [ BACK ]

*3 Speaking of the audience, there was an advert for Taylor Swift's UK stadium tour in front of this film. That's not an unusual type of product in itself, but there's normally some broad demographic link (a similar promo ran for N*ckleback in front of The Huntsman) - that's generally how advertising works. But the Taylor Swift advert didn't run before A Wrinkle In Time on the same day. Who do the film distributors think is watching Ghost Stories, exactly? [ BACK ]

*4 But kept opening anyway... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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