Though adapted from their London stage success, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s “Ghost Stories” follows in the footsteps of the 1945 anthology chiller “Dead of Night,” one of the rare Ealing Studio classics that wasn’t a comedy. It consists of three creepy tales of supernatural occurrences connected by a wraparound narrative.
That thread follows Philip Goodman (Nyman), a professor and self-styled debunker of fake mediums and other such phonies, approached by an old idol of his, long thought dead but merely a recluse, to investigate three cases he’d never been able to resolve to his satisfaction. So off Goldman goes.
The initial episode finds him interviewing a belligerent fellow (Paul Whitehouse), who was visited by an apparition from his own tragic past when serving as a security guard at a derelict asylum that once housed female patients. The second takes him to the house that a near-hysterical young man (Alex Lawther) shares with his unsupportive parents; he relates a terrifying car trip through the woods, when he was attacked by a strange creature. Finally Goodman talks with a smug, condescending businessman (Martin Freeman), who, over the course of a ramble through the fields to his gun shed, describes how a poltergeist invaded the nursery he and his wife had prepared for their expected child.
In the course of these investigations, flashbacks reveal something of what drives Goodman—especially his unhappy childhood with a rigorous Jewish father. But his personal issues come to the fore in the final act, when he must relive a traumatic episode from his adolescence that, it is finally revealed, has had a profound impact on his life.
The final twist, which ties everything together, is actually rather lame, but along the way to it the film offers a number of genuinely scary moments as well as considerable tension building up to them. The script also contains a good deal of humor, much of it provided by Freeman’s waspish delivery. Even better, though, is Lawther, who uses his moon-like face and bulging eyes to paint a hilarious portrait of a kid just on this side of full dementia. Whitehouse is fine as well, and while Nyman occasionally seems a mite uncomfortable, overall he conveys Goodman’s gradual deterioration as he makes his way through the cases he’s become committed to.
Without knowing how “Ghost Stories” worked on stage, with effects that must have been highly theatrical, it’s apparent that it’s been opened up fairly successfully for the screen. There are plenty of outdoor scenes, and the scares are achieved cinematically, through canny camera movement (by Ole Bratt Birkeland), moody editing (Billy Sneddon), atmospheric production design (Grant Montgomery) and brooding music (Haim Frank Ilfman). The roots are there, in terms of the long dialogue sequences and a closing turn that has a long history on stage and isn’t really suited to film, but at least they’ve been camouflaged fairly cleverly.
“Ghost Story” manages to be agreeably creepy and amusing. It won’t stick in the memory in the way “Dead of Night” does, but it provides some real, if passing, chills.