Review: Ghost Stories (2017)

Andy Nyman battles a gaggle of creepy ghosts in Leeds.

A university professor is tasked with investigating three unsolved cases of paranormal activity in Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s unsettling feature debut.

Ghost Stories is the feature debut of Andy Nyman (character actor, magician, and Darren Brown’s bestie) and Jeremy Dyson (the unseen forth member of The League of Gentlemen), both co-directing and penning the screenplay adaption of their hit 2010 stage play. Phewy, that’s a lot of time and work. And then some, as Nyman plays the lead character Professor Phillip Goodman, who specialises in parapsychology – (basically, the study of paranormal stuff like ghosts, telepathy, and spoon bending). But he’s a kind-hearted skeptic, exposing overly quaffed and fraudulent spiritual mediums, and more likely to offer a possessed child a sympathetic ear than brutally exorcise them.

The good professor’s non-believer status is thrown into question, when his long presumed dead TV hero and fellow supernatural investigator, Charles Cameron (it’s a total spoiler, if I told you who played him), tasks Goodman with investigating three unsolved cases of spooky goings-on in West Yorkshire. Firstly, there is the tale of a salty night watchman terrorised in an old factory, played by Paul Whitehouse, he gives a fine performance akin to a haunted roll of sandpaper, which isn’t a dig at him, I wish he worked more. Then, Goodman meets a nervous teenager (Alex Lawther), who stutters his way through the story of his accidental hit and run with a ghoulish goat on a Yorkshire backroad. And finally, a well-heeled hedgie (Martin Freeman) takes the Professor on a brisk stroll across the North York Moors, as he recounts the grisly birth of his first child…

And here’s the rub, I’m not sure how much I can reveal of the story beyond this point. Why, you may ask? Well, Jeremy Dyson after the press screening, politely and firmly told the room full of reviewers (me included) to keep the film’s secrets in much the same way theatre critics swore off revealing mild spoilers when the stage play premiered almost a decade ago. And even audiences have remained tight-lipped, which is surprising given the play’s 1,000 plus performances across the country. Oh, I’ve said too much already… And to be honest here, without giving too much away, I felt there was something more than a touch unsatisfying about how the three cases unfolded on-screen, for my money none of them ever really reached a truly horrifying conclusion, which had a lot to do with the frankly mind-bending finale.

But what I can tell you is jump-scares rarely phase me, and the film’s over reliance on – (quiet, quiet, quiet, bang!) did grate on me, just a little bit… Yeah, I know it’s a cheap and effective tool, which gets audiences shrieking in their seats – (yes, a fully grown man wailed like a scared cockapoo in the seat behind me), but for the harden horror fan it’s all too predictable. In the film’s favour however, Nyman and Dyson have a clear affection for the horror films of their youth – I spotted references to The Evil Dead (1981), The Exorcist (1973) and Friday the 13th (1980), and a big old dollop of Hammer Films, I could go on but I won’t.

It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that at times, Ghost Stories did get under my skin and unsettle my waters… again I just can’t elaborate on the few toe curling scenes that worked for me. Interestingly, there are visual easter eggs that link the three stories together, which is a clever touch when the final scene unspools. And I’m a hundred percent sure repeat viewings will reveal more carefully placed props and key lines of dialogue that make Professor Goodman’s journey to the dark side less wibbly-wobbly. But I’m not going to do that… I just wasn’t all that gripped by the story’s horror inflected through-line of repressed male guilt.

Perhaps it’s fair to say this just isn’t my kind of horror film. I like a bit more splatter with my creatures of the night, I’m old fashioned that way. But I do salute the boys for making a non London-centric horror film that tries to do something different for better or worse. And I for one would be interested to see what Nyman and Dyson do next, as they have thoroughly mine this Yorkshire hotpot of horror.

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