Anyone lucky enough to have seen Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s petrifying play is unlikely to have forgotten the experience. So, this film adaptation, which they also directed, should be approached with some trepidation, for two reasons: 1) It might be scary. And 2) it might be shit.
The very first seconds suggest that – phew – it’s the former. We hear a drip-drip-dripping that aficionados will recognise from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, then, BOOM, the titles appear with such thunder that the preview audience nearly leapt out of their skins.
Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman) is an academic who has dedicated his life to exposing dodgy psychics. We first meet him defrocking a fraudulent spiritual medium, in the exact London theatre where the play was performed. Goodman is earnest but glib: in short, ripe for unravelling. “We have to be very careful what we believe in,” he warns. Soon, he’s tasked with probing three creepy tales that may – or may not – challenge his certainty.
In the first, he meets spooked security guard Tony Matthews (Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse) in an eerily quiet pub. Matthews recalls a traumatic night patrolling a derelict mental hospital. Alone with just a flashlight, walkie-talkie and radio for company, Matthews finds himself haunted by the memory of his sick daughter. When the trappings of modernity fail – the power cuts out, Anthony Newley’s creepy ‘Why’ starts and stops (as in Gangster No. 1) – things get deliciously dark.
Tale two sees Goodman travelling to the house of Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a manic, Gollum-eyed teen who encountered something infernal while driving through the woods late at night. Again, it’s when the safety nets of the normal world snap – Rifkind’s car breaking down, his phone drifting in and out of signal (“Fucking O2!” he cries) – that terror strikes.
Tale three, concerning businessman Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) and his wife’s struggles to conceive, is the weakest, as in the play. But there’s more going on than first appears. As Priddle puts it, “Why is it always the last key that unlocks everything?”
Theatregoers will already know what to expect, but the big surprise is not that Ghost Stories is both frightening and funny, but that it’s so cinematically crafted. From the lonely seaside caravan park to the deserted bar to the forlorn woods, every setting speaks of the existential emptiness of those who believe in nothing at all. It’s as if it’s not just the characters who are haunted, but the universe they – and we – inhabit. And isn’t that the scariest thought of all?