Adapted from the popular stage show written by Andy Nyamn and Jeremy Dyson, Ghost Stories adopts the anthology structure of many popular twentieth century horrors like Cat’s Eye and Creep Show. It’s also firmly British - audiences will recognise the ever-popular Martin Freeman – and it has the drab and lifeless feel of a run-down town in England. Equally as important as the setting is the humour – “she fingered herself over John Travolta last night” drawls a supposed ‘psychic’ lady – and it helps punctuate, and subvert, some popular horror tropes.
Our protagonist, Phil Goodman, starts the story with the same level of scepticism as the audience, repeating the phrase “the brain only sees what it wants to see”, but the progression of the 'meta-narrative' sees him become more and more unhinged – seeing horror in familiarity, such as cars, landscapes, and trees. It is apparent from the get-go that Goodman is on some sort of arc that will either ruin him or redeem him, and with this in mind, the film feels a lot more tense than it would do if the audience weren’t invested in his character.
The anthology structure takes the audience through three separate stories, each one as bizarre as the other: the nightshift worker who gets visited by a demonic doll-like figure as he works a shift overnight in a women’s asylum; a troubled young teenager who sees monstrous creatures in an insidious forest; and a deeply disturbed well-to-do man who is haunted by poltergeists. All of these stories, bizarre as they may be, provide adequate jump-scares and well-sustained tension – but weaving through the narratives, and indeed, what connects the stories, is the sense of panic and self-loathing felt by the characters.
Paul Whitehouse portrays the bitter and pained Tony in the first story, and his performance is a one of real anguish. Alex Lawther (you may recognise him from Black Mirror’s ‘Shut up and Dance’) portrays his character as both completely unhinged but also comical – screaming ‘FUCK THAT’ to the demonic demand that he stays still if he wants to live – and Goodman himself is clearly haunted by a troubled past that is made reference to throughout the film. The symbolism is clever and apparent – and the reveal at the end feels very theatrical in itself, but also entirely satisfying.
As well as simple jump-scares, Ghost Stories also touches upon very serious and contemporary issues. Mental illness, loneliness, guilt, repression – all of these themes are explored in their own ways, using the different characters and narrative arcs. Pathos is well utilised: each character tugs on our heartstrings in their own way, but not in a way that feels false or exaggerated. Despite the fact that Ghost Stories is a horror, it does not merely rely on cheap jump-scares or thrills to generate all of its tension – a quality which differentiates it from its competitors.
Ghost Stories is not quite as tense and terrifying as its current horror rival, A Quiet Place. However, it doesn’t try to be – and the campy and unconventional blend well with the unsettling, rendering it a spooky and entertaining film.