Ghost Stories – SPOILER review
The theatrical production of Ghost Stories was created by Andy Nyman and League of Gentlemen alumnus Jeremy Dyson. It followed in the footsteps of the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman In Black’, being another theatrical supernatural thriller with the express aim of making its audience jump out of their skins at exactly the same point. The host of a paranormal investigation show, ‘Professor’ Philip Goodman (Nyman) is presented with three cases that tested the rationalist point of view of his hero, paranormal debunker Charles Cameron.
The jump scare is the simplest and easiest type of cinematic shock. It’s a predictable mechanism, but that anticipation is part of the appeal. Before the audience reaches the actual scare there is the obligatory misdirection and false shock, nicknamed a ‘bus’ after it was demonstrated so influentially by Jacques Tournier’s ‘Cat People’. By now viewers are fully aware this is a fake out, and director and audience play a game about how long they will have to wait. How many times will the film maker tease them by inflating and puncturing the suspense? Even so, diminishing returns set in a long time ago and these days the scare itself is usually submerged beneath a deafening orchestral sting, and probably a scream and a sub-bass thump, regardless of whether there’s any cause for it onscreen.
In ‘Ghost Stories’ the jump scares are well executed and unlike many other modern horrors (e.g. the noisy, hyperactive ‘Winchester’) they are properly earned. The film makes the audience wait well beyond the point where they – educated in the deliberate deceptions of pace – would expect them to occur. The camera lingers behind a character’s POV, following them reluctantly. Shallow depth of field means that even as the spectres are gradually revealed, they remain blurred and more horrific to the unrestrained imagination. The camera is used as a proxy for the audience, subliminally warning them not to look full on at the ghosts.
Whilst the film keeps busy exploiting the potential of the three hauntings for scares, it works pretty well. It’s only when the underlying arc of Goodman’s character begins to take centre stage that things lose focus and perhaps confuse the audience expectations. The film uses a portmanteau structure, borrowed from Hammer and Amicus anthology horror films, but most directly from the Ealing Studios supernatural chiller ‘Dead of Night’. Whilst it aids Goodman’s journey, to some extent it denies the ghost stories proper resolution. There is no revelation of past crimes or exorcism of secrets. What do these ghosts want? On top of this, there is an opening flashback sequence which goes to great lengths to illustrate the hero’s disbelief stems from the effect of an oppressive orthodox Jewish background. But although the story references anti-semitism later on, this initial sequence feels detached and unnecessary to justify the narrator’s rational and humanist views. It almost feels like the introduction to a completely different film, or maybe it’s a piece of misdirection, considering what is to come.
Where ‘Ghost Stories’ does score is in its use of settings and the atmosphere they conjure. The ghosts come from the recent past or the present day. No Victorian grey ladies here. With just a brief excursion into the woods for a bit of arboreal dread, decaying seaside towns, claustrophobic suburban housing and discarded industrial spaces show the dreadful work of time and the fragility of human endeavour. The victims of the hauntings are alone in the dark, clutching a single piece of failing technology – phone, walkie talkie or torch – that substitutes for the guttering gothic candelabra to protect them from the dark.
These men, and they are all men, are in differing ways isolated, wounded, trapped in their environments, almost ghosts themselves. In fact, all of the main cast are white men. There is only one speaking part for a BAME actor. As the story goes on, by accident or design, it seems to home in on the fears and frailties of white British men. Even more telling, the only significant roles for women are the various spectres and demons the haunted men encounter. The men are assailed by the spirits of dead orphan girls, still born children, and the screaming spectre of a wife who dies in childbirth. Were it not for the fauns of the forest, it’d be a full set. There’s nothing wrong with exploring specific male fears, in fact it’s extremely timely, but how much is conscious and deliberate? The stated theme of ‘Ghost Stories’ is how people create their own ghosts via the guilt they carry through life, but the isolation, emotional constipation and functional redundancy of modern men comes out far stronger, even as the plot yanks the rug from under the viewer and makes us doubt the truth of everything we’ve just been watching.
A frustrated Goodman returns to face his mentor, dismissing the supposed paranormal case histories as the product of life bearing down on frail humans, whereupon onscreen reality itself is ripped in two and the narrator finds himself heading for a reckoning that’s much closer to home. He’s actually on life support in a hospital bed, a victim of ‘locked in syndrome’, after an abortive suicide attempt. The stories the viewer has just watched are in fact the product of Goodman’s imprisoned imagination working on his surroundings as he lies paralysed in bed. On first viewing it appears to fit the overall theme of the rationalist, disbelieving paranormal investigator, and confirms his worldview, but with a dramatic irony. He has gone from sceptic to doubter, only for it to be revealed that this debate is being acted out in his head. Does he attempt suicide because he has been disabused of his rational worldview, or because he has found it leaves a spiritual void he can’t fill? It’s a point the screenplay doesn’t articulate well enough. Somehow it calls back to the home movie exposition at the start of the film, but not in any clear manner.
Part of the thrill of a ghost story is the audience allowing themselves to entertain the idea that the supernatural might be real, and enjoying the fear that provokes. The ending to ‘Ghost Stories’ appears to stamp all over that, like our hero invading the stage to blow the cover of a fraudulent psychic. It leaves behind a slight feeling of being cheated by a cleverly executed trick. It’s not ‘it was all a dream’, but at the same time the filmmakers appear to enjoy the technique of the bait and switch more than what it could have said about their characters.