At the beginning of Ghost Stories, Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is monitoring a live video feed of a celebrity psychic performing onstage. This illustrates how watching and listening closely can reveal the explicable reality behind the apparently supernatural – but it also slyly reveals the transition of Ghost Stories itself from 2010 play to film. So agile is Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s conversion of their own materials from stage to screen, so spookily evocative – and ultimately disorienting – their use of multiple locations, that those viewers unfamiliar with the original play will be unable to discern how this could ever have been performed live.
A devoted debunker of the supposedly paranormal, Phillip is challenged by his idol Charles Cameron to solve three cases that Cameron claims prove the supernatural exists: casually racist Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse) who had a spooky encounter while working as nightwatchman in a former women’s asylum; teen liar Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) who runs across a demonic goat in the dark woods; and anti-semitic broker Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) whose family is undone by poltergeist activity.
Lightened with surreal humour, these three stories carefully amp up the terror, playing games of peekaboo in the dark without – to Phillip’s great frustration – reaching any meaningful conclusion on the existence of something beyond. Yet they are also a part of Phillip’s own story, and when Mike, trying to unlock a cabinet, asks Phillip, “Why is it always the last key that opens anything?”, he might as well be talking about the film itself. For here, clues are scattered like breadcrumbs before the viewer, but their key does not come till the very end. Sceptical Phillip may be locked into his mindset, but there really is a world on the other side that he cannot quite grasp, full of the ‘existential terror’ so beloved of old Charles. The result is an uncanny paradox: supernatural yet, like lapsed Jew Phillip, entirely secularised.
Ghost Stories was seen and reviewed at the BFI London Film Festival.