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THIS SCREAM & PLEASANT LAND
GHOST STORIES (15)
Review: David Stephens
One of the many elements of British genre that has been celebrated over the years has been that of the horror anthology. Arguably started with the classic Ealing non-comedy “Dead of Night” in 1945 (one of the first and best examples of an “evil” dummy), it reached its most recognisable state during the heyday of Amicus, with examples like “Asylum” and “The House that Dripped Blood”. Each film had several ghoulish short stories linked by a common factor like a building or storyteller. “Ghost Stories” resurrected this Grand Guignol tradition in 2010, with a stage play that harkened back to this format as well as creating some of the best jump scares in a theatre environment. It was written by Jeremy Dyson (co-creator of the dark comedy series “The League of Gentlemen”) and Andy Nyman (best known for his work with Derren Brown and other film/TV projects). Not only did it bring a horror portmanteau to theatreland, it attempted to emulate some of the best creepy scenes from classic modern horror films like “Don’t Look Now” and “Rosemary’s Baby”. After some stupendously successful tours (with brilliant marketing to boot), the circle has turned and “Ghost Stories” is now a full-blown British horror movie, based on its theatrical counterpart. After playing the festival circuit at SXSW and Frightfest it’s now in UK cinemas and due for a limited theatrical release in the US later this month. So YGROY goes Scooby Doo on your ass (not literally, that would be gross) and breaks out the EMF meters for some old fashioned tales from the creeped…
It starts with Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) revealing the tricks perpetrated by a sham stage “psychic”, who is in the middle of bamboozling an audience. Afterwards Goodman explains to camera that he is part of a reality show called “Psychic Cheats”, and has dedicated his life to exposing those who use fake supernatural tricks to fool the general public. He also reveals that he was inspired by a similarly cynical paranormal investigator called Charles Cameron, who vanished many years ago. Goodman then unexpectedly gets a tape and letter from Cameron, who is apparently terminally ill and living in obscurity in a caravan at an aging seaside town. Meeting his one-time hero he doesn’t get the reception he expects, as Cameron challenges him to investigate three of his old unexplained cases, which he now thinks prove the existence of the supernatural. Troubled by the encounter, Goodman nonetheless follows the leads and interviews three men who have all had terrifying experiences. The stories will affect him more than he can possibly imagine…
Any production that travels direct from stage to film has its work cut out, making the transition work in terms of cinematography and plot changes. This writer was lucky enough to catch the stage show in London on one of its earliest runs, and experienced the immersive production first hand. The whole theatre was decorated to resemble part of the set, the main character and narrator is giving a “lecture” to the audience, and subsequent “mistakes” and inventive tricks on the various sets play with your senses admirably. Happily we can report that this film version is just as proficient at creeping out its audience and providing a fearful slice of entertainment, whether you’ve seen the show or just want to see a scary home-grown movie.
The film is co-directed by Andy Nyman (who also played Goodman on stage) and Jeremy Dyson, and they retain the dour and gritty British sense of genre that ran through the play. They’re greatly aided by a top-notch cast of UK actors. Paul Whitehouse plays an edgier version of his “wide-boy” characters with aplomb, Martin Freeman does a superb job as the no-nonsense businessman who has one of the most horrifying encounters, and Alex Lawther (recently starring to great acclaim in “The End of the F***ing World”) is superb as the twitchy OCD young man with overbearing parents. Nyman himself has given great overlooked performances in the past (see the underrated “The Glass Man” from 2011), and is equally as good here as the central character with hidden baggage and a real desire to prove his own scepticism.
The stage origins are sometimes noticeable if you’re aware of them; there are rarely more than two people in a scene at any one time and locations are mostly in one frame. But sometimes this actually works in favour of the screenplay and gives it the appropriately surreal edge that it needs to succeed and create some unsettling chills. It does open up in scale at certain points, with road trips to a depressingly grey-skied and run-down seaside resort, or a desolate moor with a storage shed in the middle of nowhere. The cinematic upgrade does benefit the narrative as a whole, and at least two of the titular stories in particular. Freeman’s character stares out from a luxury modern house onto a snow-covered Northern tundra, and a spooky night-time drive is given extra depth in scenery and a change in direction (along with some nods to “new” technology – “Fucking O2!”). The fact that pubs, roads, and pretty much all external locations seem deserted makes it all the more creepier and quintessentially British. And if you’ve visited a UK seaside town in winter… it’s not unrealistic either. But it does give it that unique and familiar tone of depression and almost nihilism.
Is it scary though? Well… yes it is. The aforementioned feeling of oppression and isolation juxtaposes nicely with some well-realised jump scares, along with some genuinely screwed up apparitions that mess with your head. Freeman’s spectre and “Kojak” especially come to mind. If you’re expecting three complete tales with clear starts and ends, like “Tales from the Crypt”, this may well surprise you. It’s all interspersed with some disturbing little “Easter Eggs” that litter the journey along the way. There are recurring details and motifs that pray on your mind and point to something bigger. Along the way there are disturbing glimpses of half-seen figures and continuing evidence of the supernatural. Or are there? Play close attention to the movie strapline…
We really enjoyed this. Even if you have seen the play (or are at least aware of it) there are enough changes and upgrades to make this worthwhile. If you are new to it, all the better and you’ll enjoy the experience too. As previously stated though, it’s less of a straightforward portmanteau than you may expect from that title, and it’s a quirky and surreal affair with real Anglo sensibilities. Although US reviews from SXSW have been wholly positive, it’ll be interesting to see how it plays in the states when it’s properly released. There are a couple of times when you may perhaps wish it would break free just a bit further from its theatrical origins, and go for broke with some of the hauntings. “Barty” (no spoilers) at least could have been given a bit more life beyond what he’s given here, which mirrors his stage performance. But then you have great moments with Freeman obviously having a ball with his role, and the way in which the whole thing comes together in the climax, as successive moments of WTF? revelations slot into place. Fine fright stuff that will stay with you for days.
A fine example of an effective (and scary) stage show realising its potential on film, “Ghost Stories” tricks, teases, and terrifies in equal measures. The cast have a great time with the material, and the whole thing is genuinely unsettling with a typically British feel for the darkness. Perhaps some elements could have been expanded, but overall this is a tremendous outing for home-grown horror and nastiness.
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