Note: this article was also published on Contents May Vary.
Ghost Stories, written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (based on their stage play of the same name). Produced by Lionsgate. Copyright 2018.
In 2014, I was lucky enough to go to London on an internship for two months. While there, I managed to watch as many theatrical productions as my budget allowed. At the time, there were two ‘long-running’ plays about the supernatural, The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories. I could only afford one, and as some of my fellow students went to Ghost Stories, I decided to do the other.
Why I bring this up is to not only acknowledge the origin of the movie, but to show that I am a theatre nerd. Supernatural stories on the stage are quite the production, pun intended. In fact, my favorite production while I was at my undergrad was a production of The Haunting of Hill House, where our sound technician did some fabulous things with the audio design. When done well, the show uses the best techniques of stage to constantly make the audience wonder how something was done.
To say I was excited to hear there was going to be a movie is an understatement. Admittedly partly because Martin Freeman was in it, but also because Andy Nyman (who not only co-wrote and co-directed the movie, but also reprises his stage role as Professor Goodman) is a co-writer and director of illusionist Derren Brown’s shows. I was curious as to how it would transfer to film, especially as much of the marketing surrounding the stage production requested the audience to keep the plot details to themselves.
Ghost Stories is the story of Professor Phillip Goodman, a debunker of the paranormal. He’s successful enough to get his own television show, where the movie starts with him investigating a clairvoyant. His role model is Charles Cameron, who had investigated coma patients and paranormal settings until he mysteriously disappeared. Cameron, of course, shows up, telling Cameron that he has changed his mind about the supernatural and that he has three cases that supposedly prove that ghosts are real.
Case 1 is Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman at an abandoned asylum. During one night, he is haunted by disturbing visions that echo his dead daughter. Case 2 is Simon Rifkin (Alex Lawther), a teen driving home through the woods when he has an accident with … shall we say something not natural. Finally, case 3 is Mike Priddle (Freeman), a former banker who is being visited by the poltergeist of his unborn child. Each of the stories also make Goodman reflect on his own life, growing up as a Jewish boy, dealing with a father that looks to be dying, and still coping from events from his own childhood.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie: the suspense is just the right level, and like all good horror movies, there are a couple of twists along the way. The acting is stupendous, although having Lawther as one of the ‘cases’ just made me compare it to an episode of Black Mirror. And with that in mind, I was a little underwhelmed by the final twist. (Don’t worry: no spoilers.) It felt to me like a bit of a cop out, and I’m concerned that it may not hold up once you know it.
But when it came down to the actual scares, I was a little disappointed at how much of the movie was just camera tricks, especially when the movie seems to have kept the show’s tagline of ‘the mind sees what the mind sees’. With a co-writer who worked with one of the world’s premiere illusionists and with the story originally coming from the stage, I was hoping for more practical effects. When illusionists perform on television, there’s a lot of work that goes into showing how their tricks are really happening. But there are several times when the scare could be explained away by CGI or by the camera angle, which just made me incredibly curious as to how they did it on a stage. With my own experience of doing tech for a couple of theatre productions myself as well as remembering that the main thing I liked about The Woman in Black was how it used theatre techniques in the best way possible, I was expecting more ‘illusion’.
While I liked the movie and recommend it, I came away from it wishing I had seen the stage production when I had a chance.
Ghost Stories opens April 20, 2018, in New York and cable on demand, and April 27 in Los Angeles. For more information, visit the IFC Midnight website. (Date updated on 4/18/18.)
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