The portmanteau movie was once a staple of the horror genre, a series of self-contained stories under one roof, but with a linking theme that would reveal itself during the last few minutes of the overall running time. Jeremy Dyson grew up watching such fare on late-night TV; offerings from the iconic studios of Amicus and Hammer that had scared the wits out of an earlier generation of cinema-goers, which were themselves informed by vintage frighteners like Ealing’s 1945 anthology Dead of Night.
As a co-writer but non-performing quarter of The League of Gentlemen, he relished referencing them time and again in episodes of the hit TV comedy, embracing the format in full for the show’s 2000 Christmas special. Ghost Stories, however, sets out to tingle the spine, rather than tweak the funny bone, and is arguably the most hair-raising and unsettling British horror in decades.
Dyson’s co-director Andy Nyman heads the cast as Professor Philip Goodman, an academic and TV personality renowned for debunking supernatural occurrences, who attempts to disprove three eerie unexplained events, a task set for him by the small screen’s previous specialist at exposing fakes and charlatans.
The trio of supernatural bafflers had led to Goodman’s crusty, aged predecessor disappearing from public view, presumed dead, the older man now all but convinced that spooks and spectres actually do exist. Subsequently, Goodman sets out to quiz the three survivors of the icily cold cases.
Nightwatchman Tony (played by Paul Whitehouse) is a nervy, hostile figure, a heavy daytime drinker in a seedy pub, still visibly shaken by an encounter in an abandoned warehouse involving faceless mannequins and a radio constantly belching out a 1960s hit by crooner Anthony Newley. A glassy-eyed teenager (Alex Lawther) endures a dysfunctional home life as he recounts a skirmish with a demon while trapped in a broken-down car in desolate woodlands. And an arrogant businessman and borderline anti-Semite Mike (Martin Freeman) is still recovering from a life-altering family tragedy that no amount of bravado can disguise.
Watch closely, though, because each chapter is peppered with subtle motifs that point towards something sinister in Goodman’s own past, like chilling chickens coming home to roost. Is there a reason why he’s been given these specific phenomena to investigate? As one character says, “The brain sees what it wants to see…”
Dyson’s love of the bizarre and grotesque goes hand-in-hand with his attention to detail throughout this extraordinary and constantly surprising film, while Nyman’s long association with Derren Brown, devising TV and stage shows for the prime-time illusionist, adds even richer textures to the examination of what’s real and what isn’t (Brown even cameos among the voice cast as a crying baby).
Ghost Stories started life as a 2010 stage show, ultimately transferring to the West End where it ran for over a year. However, its creators’ television track record suggested a bigger, more elaborate telling was almost inevitable, and the big-screen version stands proudly as a superbly realised homage to the grammar of film suspense.
It’s helped in no small way by three magnificent leads. Whitehouse and Freeman may have cut their teeth and first come to prominence as comic actors, but both possess impressive dramatic chops, the colder elements of their characters delivering jolts when prefaced by the lightest sprinklings of humour.
As good as the old hands are, they run the risk of being overshadowed by the performance of relative newcomer Alex Lawther, a star in the ascendancy following his lead role in TV’s The End of the F***ing World. All three men’s flashback stories are edge-of-the-seat stuff, but Goodman’s initial interview with Lawther’s schoolboy Simon in the present day takes creepiness to hitherto unseen heights, thanks to an actor capable of prompting goosebumps with the slightest shift in his expressions.
Dyson has appealed to early viewers of the movie not to give away its ending or significant plot points (perhaps wishful thinking for a story that’s already been seen by half a million theatre-goers), but he needn’t concern himself too much with spoilers. Knowing how the tales resolve themselves (as some first-time punters are bound to correctly predict) won’t get in the way of the sheer thrill of a film that many will want to watch again and again, with little or no reduction in the rewards it brings.
Ghost Stories is in the cinemas from Friday 6th April