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BFI LFF 2017: Ghost Stories (2017)

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Is it still possible, in this modern age of seen it all, done it all, screen horror, for a film to come along which appears both fresh and genuinely scary? It seems yes, if the new new film Ghost Stories, by writers / directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson (of League of Gentlemen fame) is anything to go by. Based on their smash hit West End play of the same name, this exercise in the macabre, is one of the few films of recent years to appear actually disturbing.

Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is an unbeliever, who has made a career out of debunking claims of apparent supernatural experiences amongst members of the public. However, when he is called upon to investigate three mysterious cases which may, or may not, be all they seem, he finds his healthy, and strongly held, scepticism put to the test with terrifying results.

Like all the best ghost stories, the less the reader – or in this case viewer – knows before they enter into it, the better. Suffice to say, though the stories are really little more than rehashes of the classic supernatural elements – haunted buildings, Devilish goings-on in the woods and everyday poltergeist activity – they are handled so slickly by Nyman and Dyson, and play out in such marvellously realised and authentic settings, that – despite its regular predicability – the finished production is guaranteed to send viewers cowering beneath their seats.

Nyman does succumb to the classic pitfall of casting himself as a central character within his own film – Dyson would probably have done so too, except for the fact he is well known for preferring to remain behind the camera, which he does here. The other main talent the filmmakers have gathered here, are more than capable of carrying their individual stories, making each segment almost a solo performance for the player: Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman, all give wonderfully full-blooded and intense portrayals of troubled and disturbed characters who’s individual, mental breakdowns may – or may not – be as straight forward as Nyman’s sceptical professor would initially believe.

The obsession with some members of the League of Gentlemen with classic British horror – such as that from studios like Hammer and Amicus – is well known. With this in mind it is not hard to see the similarities between work from the latter studio in particular and this new film: many of Amicus’ best loved films from the 1960s and 70s were portmanteau horrors, with several stories held together by an overarching tale. Which is – to all intents – what Ghost Stories does as well. And like those classic films – and unlike many contemporary ones – this film works because much of the horror is inferred rather than seen.

The film does, unfortunately, slip up occasionally. There is a proliferation of the largely unnecessary, obscenity strewn dialogue without which few modern films seems complete. Each story also struggles to maintain the tension which they build up early on, mainly due to the fact that in the end they reveal their horrors in the closing frames. Which is a shame as the less-is-more approach, is what makes this film – for most of the time – work.

The late, great Peter Cushing is quoted as saying that the imagination could always conjure up much worse than could ever be shown physically on the screen. Ghost Stories – when it keeps his advice in mind – is one of the best examples of this.

 

Directors: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Writers: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Stars: Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther, Jill Halfpenny, Andy Nyman,
Paul Whitehouse, Nicholas Burns, Derren Brown
Runtime: 98 mins
Country: UK

Rating: ★★★½☆

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