GHOST STORIES: Is ‘Good Enough’ Good Enough?
Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's adaptation of their hit stage play Ghost Stories is a serviceable British horror - but with so many recent gems in the genre, is being "serviceable" enough to justify its existence?
Britain rarely delivers homegrown horror anymore — and certainly not on the scale of Ghost Stories. Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson have adapted their own stage play for the screen, splitting writing and directing duties for the anthology project, released by Lionsgate in the UK. With the trailers promising ‘the best British horror for years’ and extensive preview screenings organised, it’s safe to say that expectations are high for the duo’s effort.
Ghost Stories follows a skeptic and renown debunker of the paranormal, Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman), who is challenged to investigate three unsolved cases. As a more intricate web is formed and perceptions are altered, Goodman begins to question whether everything is really as it seems. Co-starring Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther and Paul Whitehouse, Ghost Stories has all the elements on an effective horror in place — but cannot quite bring them together as seamlessly as imagined.
It’s a strange one, in all honesty. More creepy and eerie than outwardly terrifying, Ghost Stories grapples with its pieces and seems pretty chuffed with its outcome, but its pride is at the expense of audience satisfaction. By the time the credits rolled, frustration is simmering; you can see the elements coming together, but they never coalesce into something more (or even just equal to) the sum of its parts.
Gauging the reaction afterwards, the response was somewhat more muted than is usual after a genre piece like this, particularly from a preview screening audience, everyone seemed to be in a similar position, unsure on which side of the fence they find themselves on regarding the ending.
A clunky anthology
A lot of that comes down to the execution of the script; you can see the smug smile painted across the writers’ face, as they weave an ending intended to thrill, shock and stir. Without heading into spoiler territory, Ghost Stories hinges on one particular ‘feet from under the carpet’ moment sticking the landing. As we head for the tail-end of the third act, we find the world around our characters changing – and the film desperately clawing for an explanation, a way of tying it all up cohesively.
With a workmanlike execution, some elements are strung together in such a forced fashion and others are ignored entirely, unfortunately unexplored, forgotten and shelved. Nyman and Dyson particularly struggle to incorporate the second story, ironically the strongest of the three, into the wrap-around, realising that their is no easy way to choose between cramming it all together, or largely forgetting this story’s inclusion.
Alex Lawther is incredible
That’s not to say the whole thing is redundant though. There are moments that really work, suitably uncomfortable and truly effective. Most of them belong to Alex Lawther, who once again proves himself as one of the most talented young actors the United Kingdom has produced in quite some time. From his nervous-cum-terrfying disposition to the note-perfect ‘f*ck that!’ moment, Lawther demonstrates his range and versatility tremendously well, acting his more established counterparts off the screen.
As mentioned, the middle story is more stand-alone but notably stronger, a chilling piece of horror to sink our teeth into. The entire ensemble is sturdy enough actually, inducing the shocks efficiently — but Lawther shines brightest. I’d go as far as to say that Lawther’s incredible performance is worth the ticket price alone.
What’s more, Ghost Stories is a really well-shot piece. Nyman and Dyson allow the camera to linger just long enough for your nerves to be set on edge, before pulling away quick enough for that tension to be intensified. It playfully relies and subverts genre tropes and cliches so you’re not really sure what’s coming next; it ticks off horror boxes but in an unusual pattern, keeping it fresh enough to be effective.
In terms of writing and tone, the script is impressive at times: the infusion of comedy is effectual and sustains the mystery long enough. But when it begins to derail upon certain discoveries it lands on an ending it doesn’t really earn, deserve or know how to deliver.
In Summary: Ghost Stories
Ghost Stories is a serviceable horror. It’s fine. It’s good enough. It does what it says on the tin and while the ending is frustrating, I almost admired it for its boldness. However, in the horror renaissance we are currently experiencing, is ‘serviceable’ good enough? We’ve had the likes of Get Out sweeping Oscar nominations, blockbuster juggernauts like It reinvigorating the genre and A Quiet Place earning stellar reviews across the board.
Is ‘good enough’ good enough? It’s never awful and moves at a quick enough pace to be a pulpy little genre movie, with a couple of really superb moments and one especially terrific performance to boast – but on the whole, Ghost Stories is a rather underwhelming horror in a genre that has really started to step it up in the past couple of years.
What did you make of Ghost Stories?
Ghost Stories is out now in the UK, with a limited US release planned for the end of the month, April 20. Additional dates can be found here.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.