Confession time: I love horror films. I adore a dusty relic of a bygone era of cinema, before the arrival of slasher films. And there is no better example of this then a British-made portmanteau movie, complete with wobbly sets, hammy acting, and silliness masked by ample amounts of dry ice. So step forward Ghost Stories, an adaptation of Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's smash hit stage play, which couples a creaky fairground ride quality with some fascinating ideas and a deliciously evil ending.
The film focuses on Nyman's Professor Goodman, who has made a career debunking the supernatural and exposing con artists who use others' beliefs for their own gain. He is presented with three unsolvable cases: a night watchman haunted in an old asylum, a frightened teenager lost in the woods, and a City trader spooked by a poltergeist, and so begins digging.
Ghost Stories, as well as being influenced by portmanteau movies, feels heavily impacted by the writing duo's previous works. There are both hints of the grotesque seen in Dyson's League of Gentlemen and some of the cerebral trickery of Derren Brown's work, which Nyman has played a key part in constructing. There are interesting hints of Goodman's painful back story; an abusive father, his Jewish faith, a terrible incident buried away, which give the film an air that it is attempting to do more with its story. But this only really comes into focus in an ending that is the scariest thing the film has in its repertoire. My interests in it waned before this point, with the best story first. But now I want to revisit this film to look for the clues that piece together what Ghost Stories is actually about. If you strip away the film's creaking, clanking jump scares, there might just be something behind it all.
The cast are all game. Paul Whitehouse plays refreshingly against type as the night watchman, giving a nicely muted turn, while Alex Lawther gives a committed, intense performance, even if he is lumbered with the worst of the film's chapters. Martin Freeman is clearly having a great deal of fun as the City trader, but feels too close to caricature. The best comes from Nyman, who is the closest the film has to a fully-formed character.
The world of Ghost Stories is more interesting then the stories that take place within it. It is the first film for a while that has made me impressed with the location scout, as we travel from a rundown coastal caravan park, to a decrepit asylum (and never go in the basement!), to a howling moor, to one of the most unpleasantly modern houses to be on screen. The location director here has done a magnificent job, and the setting goes a long way to add to the charms of the film.
If there is an issue with this film, it's that the two halves don't seem to quite connect. The ghost train scares grow tiresome quickly, and the more intellectual elements really need more focus than they receive. But the nostalgia central to Ghost Stories gives it a great appeal, and Nyman is really quite magnificent in the lead role. The film just about works and it may even get a repeat view out of this horror fan.