Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson bring their secretive stage show, Ghost Stories, to the big screen as a rip-roaring old-fashioned British horror anthology film. The directing duo has name-checked the Amicus films of the 70s and, earlier still, 1945’s Ealing Studios film Dead of Night, as key cinematic touchstones. By looking to the past, they’ve created one of the most entertaining and unnerving haunted house rides in recent memory.
A TV personality skeptic (Nyman) is contacted by his hero and given three unsolved cases. As Professor Goodman meets with each victim, their tales of horror are told in flashback sequences. There’s a shift from hell for a night watch (Paul Whitehouse), a teen (Alex Lawther) who runs into car trouble in the woods, and a soon-to-be father (Martin Freeman) working from home in the dead of night. The first segment is so good that one may worry the following pair of tales won’t match up to its mounting dread or will cover similar generic ground. The latter concern is soon abated, as enigmatic up-and-comer Lawther (The End of the F***ing World) immediately announces the middle segment’s change of tone. And while parts two and three don’t have the impact of the first, they are supremely creepy little chillers in their own right.
The film is based on Nyman and Dyson’s successful play, and the material has clearly been extensively workshopped over years of performance. Ghost Stories reaches the screen in a potent package. The breakneck speed of each story ensures that an abundance of fresh hells waits around every corner with little to no time for audience comforting. Vitally, the script also works beyond the scares. Wittily written dialogue scenes require a troupe of standout actors, and Nyman and Dyson have assembled a flashy cast, especially for a film of this size. The three leads’ superlative comedic chops maneuver a tonal tightrope walk between the darkest of horrors and a lightness of delivery. It’s Nyman who performs the most integral role, however. He provides a personal touch that would have been unachievable without either of the creators on screen. It’s his command of the material that really sells the twists and turns of the truly haunting finale.
The film looks striking, as it balances tightly composed genre visuals with a faux documentary that has the professor speaking to camera. Nyman and Dyson capture the chilly British countryside effectively and make use of some amazing sets. As a member of British illusionist Derren Brown’s inside team, Nyman displays great sleight of hand when it comes to the in-camera trickery. In that sense, Ghost Stories is not only a love letter the horror genre, but also to magic and conjuring. That comes into play thematically, too, as the film explores what it means to believe and — with regards to skepticism — the value, or lack thereof, of challenging that faith.
Ghost Stories is refreshingly old-fashioned in its embrace of classical horror techniques. Ultimately, Nyman and Dyson’s film is so full-bloodedly cinematic that it leaves one wondering how on earth they captured this on the stage.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.