There’s something special about a really good ghost story. The horror genre covers an incredible range of subjects and a much broader territory than many give it credit for, but ghost stories gets under your skin like nothing else. They’re the ones that stay with you long after you leave the cinema or close the book. They’re…well, they’re haunting.
“I can’t remember exactly what the strapline of The Haunting was but it’s something like ‘Whether you believe or not you cannot deny the terror,’” Andy Nyman tells us when we talk to him about his hotly anticipated film Ghost Stories. “It’s quite brilliant because that’s one of the joys of a ghost story. It’s that frisson of ‘I know that was a film, I know that was a story and I know it’s not true and I know it’s silly but I’m just going to leave the light on tonight.’ The way our DNA works is unbelievably sophisticated and the processes that go on in our brain to help us survive are prehistoric, and it’s a really interesting thing when we think we’re really sophisticated and really modern to find these little ancient bits of caveman programming in our brain that are still essential and still work. It’s not a comfortable feeling when they’re awoken and that’s a really wonderful thing.”
Nyman (a veteran character actor who genre fans will recognize from films like Severance, Black Death and The ABCs Of Death 2) and Jeremy Dyson (one of the four members of The League Of Gentlemen) caused more than a few sleepless nights with their fantastically successful stage play Ghost Stories, which opened back in 2010 and quickly became a sensation. Audience members were urged to keep the secrets of the plot to themselves as word of mouth quickly spread about the show in which a professor of parapsychology (played by Nyman) discusses three apparent cases of the supernatural.
“It’s the strangest thing for me and Andy because it’s become this constant in our lives,” Dyson tells us. “When we started work on the play, it’s hard to remember but it was just going to be six weeks at the Lyric Hammersmith, it was a self-contained thing. And to say that what’s happened since has been a surprise is a rather enormous understatement. It is extraordinary for both of us, partly because people are still interested enough for us to do all these various iterations of it, but also that we ourselves haven’t got bored of it, we call it the gift that keeps on giving because we never tire of it. Whenever we return to it in whatever form it’s just endlessly fascinating to both of us.”
In its film incarnation written and directed by the duo, Ghost Stories follows Professor Goodman (Nyman reprising his role) as he receives three apparently supernatural cases from one of his heroes, a pioneering sceptic who is now convinced that everything he debunked was in fact real. Desperate to prove that “everything is exactly as it seems”, Goodman visits a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who experienced a haunting at an abandoned asylum, a teenager (Alex Lawther) who encountered some kind of monster while driving through a forest one night, and a yuppie (Martin Freeman) who was visited by a poltergeist. We’re shown each event as the victim experienced it themselves, and as Goodman follows the breadcrumbs, his confidence begins to shake…
“One of the most fun things about the play was we were taking horror film archetypes and seeing what happened when you put them on stage, which was part of the game of what we were doing,” explains Dyson. “So, the challenge when we were then reverse engineering it going the other was: how on earth do you stop them feeling like clichés or things that you’ve seen a hundred times before? We went through lots of different versions, developed that right across the process of doing it and we were still working on it when we were editing in terms of getting that story working to our satisfaction.”
“We had to go back to the drawing board, but it just kept yielding more material for us,” adds Nyman. “We were finding more moments that we loved that were born out of our own material but also moments from films that we’d always loved. So, you’re finding all of those influences afresh and that was just wonderful. Because we’ve both loved horror films our entire life, we’ve been best mates since we were 15 and that’s one of the things we bonded over.”
Genre fans will be aware of Dyson and Nyman’s long affiliation with and total love for the genre, and Ghost Stories pays tribute to several classics with a particular emphasis on great British chillers. “We really wanted it to feel very British,” enthuses Dyson. “We wanted it to celebrate the fact that this is a British film and we have an amazing landscape in this country that we both felt in recent years has been quite under-used. Some of our touchstones were the great British horror films from the late 60s, early 70s which really made use of that landscape like The Wicker Man, Blood On Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, which have a real epic feel and are not diminished in any way by the fact that they’re British films.”
There’s also a real Amicus anthology feel to the film, a collection of creepy tales with a nasty sting in the tail that features a strong British cast. “They were all our first choices and so we were phenomenally lucky that way,” enthuses Dyson. Martin Freeman is the film’s biggest name and is compelling as the slimy Mike Priddle, while Alex Lawther (who dazzled in Black Mirror’s ‘Shut Up And Dance’ and The End Of The F***ing World) is brimming with livewire energy as the terrified Simon Rifkind. When it came to casting Tony Matthews, Nyman tells us that Hammer’s old competitor was an important inspiration.
“Jeremy and I could not unlock it, and I was like one day let’s play this game, let’s imagine it’s an Amicus film from 1972, who would play that role?” he remembers. “So, we umm-ed and ah-ed for a bit and then we stumbled upon Ronnie Barker as Fletch in Porridge, it felt like that would be brilliant because Barker was an extraordinary actor, funny and alpha male and just had everything. Then it felt like ‘Well, who is that actor now, who is Ronnie Barker now?’ and as one we both just suddenly said ‘Paul Whitehouse.’ So the next task if we’ve got to go to Paul Whitehouse’s agent with a script, we weren’t auditioning or seeing anyone else, but Paul came in to meet us and he’s so ridiculously humble, doesn’t think of himself as an actor, couldn’t believe we wanted to see him and imagined we were seeing loads of other people so when we said honestly you’re it, he just couldn’t believe it.”
The comedian best known for his work on The Fast Show and Harry Enfield And Chums is superb as the sharp-tongued, grieving first case, nailing a blend of humour, pathos and terror that is essentially what Ghost Stories is all about. “The thing that defined it as a stage play was that it had a mix, you were going from laughter to fear response,” Dyson explains. “We were both really pleased that we ended up with a film that does a similar job.”
While part of the raw fear of a stage production comes from the immediacy, the fact that this is happening right in front of you and it’s too late to stand up and leave now, Ghost Stories the film does a remarkable job of similarly taking you out of your comfort zone. We expect jump scares in a horror film, we expect twists and turns, and we might even expect a laugh or two. But Dyson and Nyman keep finding ways to put you on edge, to jar you and make you feel uncomfortable. There are the sins of the past, of course, which each character is hiding, which any classic ghost story needs.
“It’s mythic form so it allows you to plug right into the subconscious,” Dyson explains. “That’s why it’s so good at getting at sins and the sins of the past, inner turmoil. Because that’s what ghosts are when they’re in literary form, they become externalisations of troubled inner states. Even the MR James stories, although on the surface they don’t necessarily seem psychological, they’ve always got these insular, introverted, academic types who are clearly troubled individuals and you get the feeling that something in their inner life is playing out in what they get caught up in. Ramsey Campbell is an absolute master at setting up these characters who are full of regret, loss and pain and creating these extraordinary spectral situations where the thing they have to deal with echoes with that. It’s such a beautiful thing when it works well, we were always aiming at that.”
While we wait to discover exactly what form these secrets and traumas will take, recurring moments of casual racism and anti-Semitism pepper the script and disrupt the anticipated rhythm, allowing very few moments of comfort.
“I think it’s hugely important, I think it’s everything because we’re not interested in just a boo-fest,” Nyman stresses. “Ultimately what our story is about is personal responsibility, being responsible for your words, your thoughts, your actions. It’s a deeply Judeo-Christian notion, really. It’s funny, people think that horror is sort of demonic and all about celebrating evil, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Most horror is actually deeply Christian and deeply religious and deeply biblical. Whether you’re a believer or not there are lessons in all of that stuff about human conduct that’s essential, and when you stray from the goodness, look at what the fuck happens in the world. That stuff that’s small and peppered in there is really important and I love the discomfort that gives when you sit in an audience and you hear the little casually racist moment dropped in there because it’s stuff that you hear day in day out, there’s something about seeing it on the screen that holds it up for you.”
Which is certainly not to imply that Ghost Stories is anything less than terrifying. Dyson and Nyman have created a deeply scary cinematic experience. “We’ve got over 35 years of friendship so there’s an incredible level of trust there, but collaboration is an amazing, amazing thing if you’ve got the right collaborator because the sum is so much greater than the parts,” Nyman tells us. “You end up solving and creating things that you could never do on your own. I compare it to a Ouija board, that ideomotor thing where everybody feels like they’re not pushing but somehow the glass is moving, it’s a really interesting notion and that’s what happens on a good collaboration. You’re not quite sure who suggested what or how you got to this point that you know you could never have thought of without the other person, yet you both think like that.”
Ghost Stories is in cinemas now. Read our review here.