We see much in the way of supernatural horror hitting the silver screen in this day and age, most of it attached to franchises that simply refuse to innovate - or, in harsher cases, refuse to die. Almost all of the more prominent examples of horror films in recent years have originated from the States, with a handful of exceptions generally ending up being swept under the rug.
This British horror flick seeks to subvert the prevailing trend. Ghost Stories, written by, directed by and starring Andy Nyman as its frontman, is an adaptation of Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's 2010 stage play. Nyman takes the role of Doctor Phillip Goodman to the screen, a man of science who dismisses the superstitious and the supernatural at every turn, with a worldview firmly rooted in reality. Called away from his regular routine of attempting to expose psychics for frauds, he receives an abrupt invitation Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a fellow doubter of the paranormal, but Goodman soon finds the old skeptic to have changed his tune. Now a firm believer in the existence of the otherworldly, he presents three mysterious and unsolved cases to Goodman, who must confront a trio of troubled individuals who all claim to have grappled with the supernatural. He soon discovers that not everything is as readily explainable as it appears, and from there the film leaps into a quest for the truth as Goodman struggles to deal with demons both paranormal and personal.
Ghost Stories presents itself as a sort of throwback to the older days of horror, of people with rational minds called upon to investigate seemingly ordinary occurrences and finding that nothing is truly as it seems, as opposed to a gaggle of nitwits bumbling about with a handheld camera. The film is divided, somewhat unevenly, into a series of examinations of individual cases and characters - unsettled nightwatchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), troubled teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and seemingly chipper businessman and expecting father Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman). The characters themselves, at least, are a delight to watch. Each is played to the hilt by their respective actor, and the performances are roundly convincing in very solid fashion.
The time they receive is far from equally distributed – indeed, the case revolving around Whitehouse's character consumes the most time by degrees - but all three use what time they are given to make a strong if not necessarily lasting impression. The tone in their respective sequences and throughout the rest of the film is also consistent. There are smatterings of dry wit from most of the cast, doing well to counterbalance the serious air that the film adopts, and Nyman plays Goodman to perfection, giving the character added depth in a medium that offers more creative possibilities in the realm of theatre. It is a horror feature that strives to be taken seriously and presents itself as such, and the people involved are uniformly excellent at what they do.
In this horror feature, however, it is the horror that is most lacking. While Whitehouse's case is the longest, it is also the most effective, next to the case that focuses on Lawther's character, due to noticeable care being taken to prey on more primal fears, rather than the existence of elements that are overtly supernatural - at least at first. The fear of the dark, of the unknown, of the unseen, all of these are sources of discomfort and unease that have lingered since time immemorial, and through exploiting these fears a fair amount of tension is certainly ratcheted up – but there is no defining moment of a true pay-off until the last moment's of the film's closing act.
The tension that is organically created, too, is often spoiled or outright obliterated by the use of hackneyed and excessively loud orchestral stings, and occasionally hampered by the use of questionable effects and CGI that is noticeably lackluster when not shrouded in darkness. It's not all about horror, admittedly; the most interesting segments of the film to me weren't those that revolved around build-ups and scares, but the exploration of Goodman as an individual, eventually culminating in a mind-bender of a moment in the film's last breath that serves to be the one outstanding sequence that Ghost Stories possesses. Even this leaves behind a whole host of nagging thoughts, however, and it may even make one wonder if the whole experience was even worth it to begin with. The narrative can also become wearisome to those who cannot find a reason to invest themselves in it, and with the only genuine hammer blow coming at the curtain call and with a rigid, even predictable structure - even if that is intentional, being a throwback to conventional horror staples – the end result is a feature that wanes more than it waxes.
Ghost Stories is certainly a competently-made production, that much is certain, a passion project aimed at bringing its source material out of the realm of theatre and onto the screen. It is earnest in its intentions, but the performances from the cast, the general level of technical competence and a final act that may in and of itself prove divisive are the only things that save this feature from falling completely into obscurity. By no means is it abysmal; indeed, if Nyman and Dyson hone their craft further, I believe they can create something stellar. But as it stands, this little tale is a story that, in all likelihood, you will not find the enthusiasm to tell more than once.