Despite my anxiety, or maybe because of, I love horror. However, my enjoyment of the genre tends towards Freddy Krueger’s camp one-liners and over the top practical effects found in the likes of Hellraiser and the original Evil Dead films, as opposed to the jumpscare fests that horror films and games have recently become. Ghost Stories, adapted from a play by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, can sometimes tend towards the latter, but uses a unique sense of realism to effectively deliver scares.
The premise seems simple enough: a horror anthology of three paranormal cases investigated by the cynical Professor Phillip Goodman, who, despite his vague sense of superiority over the religious types he comes across, is largely kind and sympathetic. For the first hour or so it remains this simple, with Goodman travelling from place to place to speak to characters like a night watchman and a highly strung teenager who all share similar hauntings in common. However, it is around the third act after the cases have been established that the film begins to question its own sense of reality, playing with spatiality and temporality to disturb the viewer more deeply after the barrage of jumpscares they experienced minutes before.
Although the locations of the cases initially feel a little generic (a house, an asylum, a dark road through the woods), the setting of contemporary Yorkshire allows otherwise typical scares to hit closer to home (very literally for residents of Northern England like me and my boyfriend who reluctantly came along). Rather than seeming like obvious locations that make you want to scream at the characters not to go in there, the areas like a pub and a caravan lead you to become drawn in yourself. Even the costuming, with parkas, jumpers and trainers, felt like something I would genuinely see in the street on a regular basis – and did on the rainy way home from the cinema. This is truly a British horror film, using elements of the social realist aesthetic found in recent TV series like Last Tango in Halifax and Vera to lend an eerie atmosphere to what might otherwise have come across as overblown.
For me, the strongest aspect of the film hands down was the cinematography. Ole Bratt Birkeland expertly leads and manipulate the viewer’s gaze before pulling the rug out from under them, using lighting and framing in order to make even the most familiar setting seem ominous and isolated. This, coupled with the sound design which places emphasis on distant footsteps and dripping taps, helps to create some real tension that is only occasionally let down by an unsurprising excess of jumpscares (no, a door shutting does not always need to be accompanied by the sound of a wrecking ball). His frequent long takes also leave plenty of opportunities for the lead actors to shine, and each one of them gives a fantastic performance. Even Martin Freeman, whose usual deadpan schtick I would never associate with true horror, comes across as genuinely disturbing and magnetic. The behaviour and reactions of characters are also something that can personally remove me from a horror film, but the believable actions of the protagonist prevent the scares from feeling artificial, and instead make you feel increasingly more unsafe.
Although I feel the film weakens slightly at the very end, initially feeling like somewhat of a copout, I still immensely enjoyed piecing together the narrative and feeling sincerely unsettled as I left the cinema to walk home in the dark.