“The brain sees what it wants to see,” says Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) in Ghost Stories. We, then, must want to relive some iconic cinematic moments, as the film, directed and adapted by Nyman and Jeremy Dyson from their stage play, calls on a chorus of classics ripped from our movie-going memories. The wet-rot embrace of an undead child, wreathed in yellow, recalls Hideo Nakata's Dark Water; the camera, ravening over a forest floor from the point of view of a discarnate entity, evokes Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead; and one character cheerily declares, “Life finds a way.” Fear not, we don't end up anywhere near the tyrannosaur paddock.
And yet, a paddock would be a relief, as much of Ghost Stories is spent cloistered in concrete hallways, dripping tunnels, and cramped trailers—all places where fresh air feels hard to come by. The tone of the film, laced with bitter currents of black humor, remains so dark you could pump it out of the ground. Throughout, we follow Goodman, a paranormal debunker, as he investigates three cases concerning supposedly supernatural events. Trundling through twilight mist in his vintage maroon car—not unlike the one Inspector Morse drives—his face is gray with a nimbus of doubt. He goes about his work with anxious irreverence. With his corduroy blazer and grizzled goatee, he's a neurotic reflection of Michael Bryant's swaggering Peter Brock from 1972's The Stone Tape. Peter is implacable, standing contrapposto in doorways, and, at one point, shouting to whatever force lies beyond our world, “Come when I tell you!” While Goodman can't muster that sort of bolshie confidence, he's just as insistent: “Everything is exactly as it seems,” he says.
He's wrong of course, and we know it. But exactly how we're being led down the garden path becomes our itch, one that's aggravated by the film's construction. Not so much the Tales from the Darkside armature, but the way Ghost Stories feels so constructed, set about like a magic trick with odd lines of dialogue hanging in the air and recurring motifs haunting the frame. Nyman has written much of fellow mentalist Derren Brown's shows, and you can sniff out the misdirection and showmanship here. We become Goodman.
It's a neat trick, immuring audiences in the scowl of the skeptic, but after a while it becomes a cage.
It's a neat trick, immuring us in the scowl of the skeptic, but it becomes a cage. And it's in the cases themselves that viewers are given a chance to break free. The quicksilver Paul Whitehouse (Tony Matthews) injects dread into the workaday, as he sifts through the detritus of an abandoned mental asylum. Alex Lowther plays Simon Rifkind, a troubled teen who, believing himself stalked by demons, enlists Goodman's help. (At one point, the teen flashes a manic Hannya-mask smile that cools the blood.) And a dapper Martin Freeman plays a former banker, Mike Priddle, who's fallen prey to a poltergeist, balancing blithe and baleful on a razor's edge.
There are chills that linger and lick at your nerve endings: glimpses of glowering figures at the far end of impossibly long corridors; moments of hilarious absurdity in the midst of shredding tension, like Simon's air-punching satisfaction at finding a phone signal in the middle of nowhere. And then, all of a sudden, something odd will nag at you, pull you out of the mood—a little detail that gives you the sense that you've missed the trick. You brace for the rug pull with the same toothy grimace as Goodman.
When he wrote The Stone Tape, Nigel Kneale blended the sublunary and the spectral: the notion that ghosts were merely recordings, traces of the past imbued in the very stone walls of a place. Bryant's character, a researcher looking for new recording technology, transfixed us, rapt as he was with what he couldn't understand, and couldn't capture. There was no misdirection. His frustration, and that film's power, were felt in the chest, not the head.
In setting their play to film, Dyson and Nyman decide where we look. Any magician would be jealous of that power. But it puts everything at a remove, trapping you in your own head. In Andy Murray's 2006 biography Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale, Dyson himself said of The Stone Tape: “[It] strikes a note that it just circumnavigates your intellect and gets you on a much deeper level.” Would that the same were true of Ghost Stories.