Shades and Echoes and Smoke and Mirrors
One of those tried-and-tested rules of cinemagoing that they keep going on about (whoever 'they' are) is that if you're going to the cinema on a date, it's best to make it a trip to a horror movie – mainly because the effect of watching a really scary movie is that it will move you on to the 'clinging sweatily to each other' stage much sooner than would otherwise be the case. All very well, I suppose, for those whose horizons extend so far, but – well, here's what happened to me.
A couple of weeks ago I went to see a film called Unsane with a friend of mine, whom I will be referring to as Olinka in order to save her blushes. She is a very good friend who I don't feel I see nearly enough and so I suggested we do it again and see Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's Ghost Stories, which we caught the trailer for. Olinka was keen, provided she could bring her friend Yekaterina, who was in the UK for her very first visit. So down we settled in the theatre, with your correspondent the meat in a sandwich mostly comprised of young Russian womanhood.
As usual, the trailers were carefully selected, for the most part: we had the trailer for Truth or Dare, a grisly-looking imminent horror movie, and then the trailer for Hereditary, another impending nasty. And then a couple more in the same gorily severed vein. 'Why all movies here so horrible?' Yekaterina whispered in the dark, sounding rather aghast.
'This film we are seeing is a horror movie, so they are showing us adverts for other horror movies,' I explained.
'Horror movie?' Yekaterina was turning even paler.
'Relax, it's not a horror movie, it's a thriller,' said Olinka, with her usual unflappable confidence.
'Ol, you saw the trailer for this, of course it's a horror movie,' I said, rather incredulously. I had forgotten this was a woman who thought the brutal true-life gangster movie Legend was a comedy.
Anyway, the film started and we soon found out just who had been paying attention best. Due to the kind of movie this is, there is a degree of narrative sleight-of-hand going on, but let's try and keep this straightforward and spoiler-free: Nyman co-writes, co-directs, and stars as Professor Philip Goodman, a parapsychologist and professional debunker of supernatural phenomena – something he was inspired in by a man who disappeared years ago.
But now his predecessor resurfaces, bearing details of three extraordinary cases which, Goodman is assured, will convince him of the existence of otherworldly forces, if he can summon the courage to investigate them properly.
A troubled security guard (Paul Whitehouse), alone in a derelict mental hospital in the middle of the night, begins to realise there may be something there in the dark with him. A nervous and fragile teenager (Alex Lawther), driving home through the woods one night, has a disturbing encounter which brings a whole new meaning to the word 'roadkill'. And finally, a wealthy man (Martin Freeman), whose wife is in hospital with complications connected to her pregnancy, finds his home invaded by a malevolent force of some kind. But beyond all this, is there something even worse at work? Something with a personal connection to Goodman himself...?
Well, it may be very pleasant to go to the cinema with someone you're in a relationship with and have them yelping and lunging at you in the dark, but when you are there with two young Russian women, neither of whom you are close to in that way, and one of whom you only met an hour earlier, and the pair of them are grabbing at you and clinging on and occasionally shrieking – well, you know, I found this somewhat challenging and was not entirely sure how to respond appropriately, not least because I was doing the odd spot of cringing and meeping myself. Which if nothing else should tell you that Ghost Stories really does work as a scary movie.
Andy Nyman is one of those people who seems to have been around for ages, doing lots of different things without ever really becoming well known: he was in Kick-Ass 2, for instance, and also Charlie Brooker's Dead Set; he has also been a key collaborator of Derren Brown's for many years. Jeremy Dyson, on the other hand, is famous as the lesser-spotted member of the League of Gentlemen, the one who occasionally looks like Michael Sheen.
If this, together with some of the casting, gives you the impression that Ghost Stories comes from League of Gentlemen/Black Mirror/Derren Brown-ish kind of territory, you'd be absolutely right. The League of Gentlemen practically drips with affection for and knowledge of a certain type of British horror movie of years gone by, but here the goal is pastiche much more than parody, and it is pastiche very effectively executed.
I've seen quite a few articles recently discussing the phenomenon of what they're calling 'post-horror', a label they're cheerfully sticking on films as diverse as Personal Shopper and It Comes By Night (also A Quiet Place, out at the moment, which I have a therapist's note excusing me from seeing). The two schools of thought on post-horror are that either this is a movement using the raw material of genre horror to tell stories which aren't constricted by the usual conventions and cliches, or just an empty new buzz-phrase concocted by journalists looking for a new angle. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – it occurs to me you could describe films like Under the Skin, Annihilation, and Upstream Color as post-SF with equal accuracy – but the thing about Ghost Stories is that it doesn't muck about trying to second-guess or deconstruct itself. This is a proper horror movie.
That said, there is virtually no gore in this movie, and it does draw heavily on a very British tradition of portmanteau horror films that started with Dead of Night and includes the famous Amicus horror anthologies, amongst others. (It is perhaps ironic that the only obvious in-joke in the movie is a reference to Tigon, not Amicus.) But the influences on the movie extend further – there are surely traces of things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, and even those genuinely terrifying public safety films from the 1970s. The film's world is one of dismal housing estate pubs, seafront caravan parks, waste ground, all places with their own bleak and very British eeriness.
It may be that the Diversity Police turn up on Ghost Stories' front steps, for this is primarily a film about white men, but on the other hand it is also a film with superb performances from all of the principal cast – Nyman is clearly a very skilled performer, but each of the other three manages to eclipse him completely in their segment of the film. It isn't even as if any of these is blazingly original – Whitehouse's segment just has him wandering about a dark building with a torch, for instance. And yet it builds and builds until you are frozen to your seat, unable to look away.
In the end, of course, there is a revelation of sorts – this doesn't come as a complete surprise, not least because of the heavy prosthetic make-up one character is clearly wearing – and the leap into nightmarish surrealism this involves is also extremely adroitly handled. A dozen little seemingly-trivial details from earlier in the movie snap into focus, and you realise... well, no spoilers here.
It initially seems like Ghost Stories may be trying to say something about existential dread and guilt, but in the end I get the impression the film is mainly constructed the way it is to enable the bravura twists and reveals in its final few minutes. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, for this is a horror movie which succeeds completely in its first duty, which is to seriously put the wind up the audience. Maybe there is something old-fashioned and formal about it, but it's still a terrifically alarming, entertaining experience. I very rarely use the words 'instant classic', but in this case I am minded to.