There is nothing so British as a ghost story, an eerie tale of that which should not be but is, the misty twilight dread of the half-glimpsed image in the shadows or beneath the trees when a moment before there was nothing, the chilling feeling channelled by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman in their stage play Ghost Stories, now adapted and directed for the screen by the duo.
A compulsive debunker of the paranormal driven by the religious obsession of his father which tore his family apart as a child, Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) is equally obsessed, out of control as he tramples over the feelings of those in his way to uncover fraud even as a part of him hopes to find some deeper truth.
The ghosts of his own past looming large, his elderly father hospitalised and vegetative, his sister seen only in flashback as she was shamed and driven from their childhood home, a scrawled envelope containing a cassette tape summons Goodman to a dilapidated seaside caravan park where he finds the aging paranormal investigator Charles Cameron.
The man who inspired Goodman’s own interest in the subject, missing and presumed dead since the seventies, Cameron says there were three cases which shook his own faith in the scientific explanation for the unexplainable and demands that Goodman undertake his own investigation into night watchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), reclusive teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and haunted businessman Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman).
The opening credits reels of grainy, scratched stock from the attic, the colours faded but not the pain and disappointment of the memories, there is not a hint of warmth or colour to be had in Ghost Stories, a parade of decayed facades and disenchanted lives with no hint of comfort, everything calculated to deflate the moment, to downplay the hopes of the broken characters.
Framed in a modern setting but recalling the portmanteau films of the sixties and seventies of Amicus, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or The Vault of Horror, unlike many horror anthology films of recent years such as V/H/S and The ABCs of Death where the framing story is only tangentially connected to the segments or the theme of the whole is the link, here Goodman interviews each of the subjects even as their ghastly stories reflect back on him.
Where Ghost Stories stumbles is in its adherence to that dated style, each encounter reliant on the basic horror elements of isolation and failing lights as each character recounts the personal regrets and failings which have led them to their moment in the dark, images echoing in each which provide heavy-handed clues to the underlying mystery of Goodman’s own buried past.
While in a live theatrical setting the intimacy of the performances combined with the claustrophobia of the darkened setting and the stagecraft of the jump scares may have overcome the shortcomings of the narrative, cinema is a different medium and despite the technical skill the filmed version falls far short of expectation, the telegraphed revelation of the final act so disappointing as to sully any achievement elsewhere, perhaps the best suited audience those who have never experienced a horror film before.
Ghost Stories is on general release from Friday 7th April