Having no plans for the last night I was in London when I flew there for a film festival in 2010, it didn't take much effort on my friend's part when he suggested I go see Ghost Stories at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End. The brief runtime (80 minutes, no intermission) was a big plus, and since I was there for a horror film festival it fit into the theme - why not take in another kind of scary story? And I loved the play, hoping it would someday come to the States so I could see it again, now that I knew its twist ending and could enjoy my second go, looking for all of the clues they were probably hiding in plain sight.
Alas, it never came to Los Angeles, but I love that I got to see the feature film adaptation during yet another horror film festival. I also love (for once) that my memory is poor, as the eight year gap between seeing the stage show and its feature counterpart were enough to forget most of the play's plot and characters. All I could really remember was how it ended, and as it turns out the film didn't copy that part, anyway. The basic stories are the same (a night watchman, a young boy, and a man about to become a father) but the presentation is fairly different, so even if you have razor sharp memories of the stage show, the film - written and directed by original show creators Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman - should still hold its fair share of surprises.
Of course, a direct adaptation wouldn't have been likely, anyway. Andy Nyman's character Phillip Goodman was a narrator for the stage show, addressing the audience directly as he told us about three different ghost stories that his skeptical character was for once unable to explain. This would have been uncinematic to say the least, so a new character was invented, an aging skeptic who realizes he's wasted his life trying to convince believers that ghosts are not real, because he is now convinced himself thanks to the familiar three cases. He then challenges Goodman to prove that they're fake, and - naturally, since this is a horror film - Goodman doesn't find it so easy as he usually does.
As for the stories, they're more or less how I remember them, at least in basic plot. We start with a night watchman. He's used to his quiet evenings, but one night he encounters a presence that keeps turning off the power and generally freaking him out. The second tale concerns a young man whose car breaks down in the middle of the woods after he hits something that might not be as dead as he thought. And the third tale centers on a man (Martin Freeman) whose pregnant wife is in the hospital while he is at home dealing with a ghost that seems fixated on the nursery. The anthology format allows the film to get to the scary stuff in each tale rather quickly; we see Goodman interview them and get the basic introductions and setup out of the way, then cut to the story in progress just as it's about to get to the scary stuff.
It's a format that works well as far as pacing goes, and Nyman and Dyson were wise to pepper those in between scenes with humor (Freeman in particular earns several chuckles in his introductory moments). So it's never a dull or uninteresting film, but there is a unique handicap that I cannot really explain without giving away the twist. I'll just note that the climaxes to the individual stories leave something to be desired and it often feels like you accidentally skipped forward to the next chapter, and leave it at that. I know exactly why this is the case, and I think it's a result of adapting the original stories so closely while fitting them into a mostly new framework. For those who are new to the story, it might frustrate them until they realize where the narrative is heading, which might be too late to save the experience as a whole.
Otherwise, it's a winner. Nyman is terrific as Goodman, making it easy to go on the journey with him, and it evokes the atmosphere and dry wit of the best '70s British horror, particularly the Amicus anthologies (naturally), but with a dash of folk horror for good measure. It'll make for an excellent choice come Halloween time, where its blend of playfulness and spookiness will fit the holiday perfectly, but you don't have to wait that long as it's on VOD (and limited theatrical) now. Skeptics and believers alike should find plenty to enjoy.