Ghost Stories is Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s adaptation of their play of the same name, which revolves around Professor Phillip Goodman, played by Nyman, a television personality who has made his career debunking theories of the supernatural. After a long and storied series of broadcasts, he’s managed to defy every superstition thrown at him, only for him to find himself called to the remote seaside caravan of Charles Cameron, his idol, who performed a similar role in television exposes of the 1960s and 1970s, but has recently vanished into obscurity. Understandably, Goodman feels as if he is being called to carry on the baton, but instead Cameron berates him for his life’s work, accuses him of being afraid of the supernatural rather than genuinely sceptical of its existence, and then presents him with three case files that he has never been able to disprove, challenging Goodman to investigate them himself. For the most part, the rest of the film outlines these three case studies, in a modern-day descendant of the classic Victorian compendium of ghost stories, with Nyman and Dyson moving from tableau to tableau with all the elegance and ingenuity of a well-oiled theatrical performance. While they all come together in an equally clever way at the end, these three sustained set pieces are in some ways the real centrepiece of the film, building an almost unbearable level of suspense, horror and dread.
While they all depict different stories, and all revolve around different characters, these three cases are unified by the lighting scheme of the film, which often recalls David Fincher’s collaborations with Jeff Cronenweth in the dull gloom that settles over everything. Nevertheless, this is also a very English kind of midwinter murk, working largely to contour a whole vernacular of English common sense and rational thought that is quickly dissociated and left to float across one nebulous and ominous space after another. Within that eerie funk, each story plays out as a one-person performance, albeit involving a host of mediated, related and uncannily disseminated voices that intrude upon the mise-en-scene. In the first, a night watchman finds his walkie talkie communications with his colleague disturbed by a supernatural force; in the second, a young man struggles to maintain a mobile connection with roadside assistance after a fatal accident in the middle of the woods; and, in the third, a wealthy businessman can’t believe his senses when a series of strange and inexplicable noises start to gradually emerge from his future child’s bedroom when he is at home alone.
Throughout all these sequences, Nyman and Dyson use their background on the stage to imbue the human voice with an incredible presence, poise and vulnerability when couched in darkness. At the same time, these solitary voices also turn the darkness itself into the main nemesis and source of horror within the film, with the result that Ghost Stories comes closer than just about any horror feature I’ve seen to the obscurity that drove so much classic Gothic fiction – the sense that darkness isn’t merely an absence of light, but a sticky, unruly entity of its own that cloaks everything it touches in coagulated texture. In the first two stories, in particular, it’s hard to make out anything very clearly in Nyman and Dyson’s compositions, which tend to favour wide perspectives whose scale and contours are quite difficult to discern, allowing for shifts between close-ups and long shots that feel subliminal and sudden at the same time. Whether it’s a solitary bulb, a pair of headlights, or the tiny dot of a torch, the bare minimumsources of light don’t illuminate the darkness but just intensify it around themselves, providing just enough glare to blind you further without actually disclosing anything of note. Watching it, I realised that the Gothic fixation with effects of light – such as the Brocken Spectre at the heart of William Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner – and the Gothic fixation with darkness amount to the same thing, since in both cases the physical and ontological equation of light with illumination is eerily ruptured.
That’s not to say, of course, that Ghost Stories doesn’t have any daylight scenes, since without daylight Nyman and Dyson wouldn’t be able to create the gloomy continuum between day and night that makes the film so eerie and brooding. Yet even in daylight, objects take on the same obscurity and opacity as if they were shrouded in darkness, most creepily in the second episode, in which Goodman investigates an apparent apparition in the heart of the woods, only to find that it was caused by the distorted and upheaved bole of an ancient tree. The more he looks at this clumped amalgam of dirt and roots, however, the closer it seems to be to disclosing its inherent supernatural self – a disclosure that, ironically, can perhaps only be properly illuminated under the cover of darkness. Similarly, while the third story may open on a moor, and then revert to a house surrounded by blinding snow, the pools of darkness are even dimmer and more suggestive here than in the first two tales, as light simply becomes a way of texturing and articulating radical obscurity.
That obscurity almost makes it a disappointment when the fourth act converges all these stories into an allegory of Goodman’s childhood, as well as – it seems – the entire state of contemporary Britain. To their credit, though, Nyman and Dyson never quite allow the film to play as pure allegory, or separate the diegetic and non-diegetic spaces of the film, the narratives and framing devices, in any clear or consistent way. We do learn that Goodman’s fear of the supernatural is ultimately an anxiety that every act leaves a trace, “a ghost of itself,” and that the sins of the past – both personal and political – are still imbricated somehow in the present. Yet that doesn’t preclude the existence of the supernatural either, as the film ends with a chilly ambivalence towards its three stories that is far eerier than either a straight debunking or straight confirmation could ever have been. The result, then, is one of the very few occasions where a theatrical origin works wonders for a horror film, as Nyman and Dyson draw upon Britain’s classical Gothic heritage – Walpole and Radcliffe are never far away – in its most theatrical incarnation to reveal that its pools of darkness were proto-cinematic, cinematic before their time, and cinema that still speaks to us today.