Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, this reworks the material of their successful stage play in film terms … the play was framed as a lecture by sceptic Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman), chewing over three cases he finds particularly challenging to his beliefs. Here, we get a tricksier set-up as Goodman begins by reviewing home movie footage and announcing that his father’s religious beliefs destroyed the family – we glimpse a row involcing a never-seen-again sister – and fronting a ‘psychic frauds’ TV show where he barges in on the performance of a smarmy charlatan and exposes the trickery whereby he fakes visitations from dead relatives. A close-up of a now doubly-bereft mother in the audience, who has lost her child and now the illusion of her enduring presence, indicates that the cruelties of deception and revelation are complicated, kicking off a sub-thread that turns out to be the binding factor of an Amicus anthology-like format where the stories have odd contradictions and repetitions (numbers on walls) that foreshadow a final conte cruel hinging on character flaws rather than the great beyond and which wind together elements from all the anecdotes after the manner of the nightmare scene at the end of Dead of Night (1945), the literal this-is-where-we-came-in point of British multi-story horror cinema.
Meanwhile, the film gives an interlocking series of mysteries and oddly incomplete stories, which also serve as springboards for a succession of jump scares and creep-out moments … satisfyingly, the biggest scare of the play is translated into the biggest scare of the film, so audiences lurch in terror at precisely the same moment. Nyman gets the most nuanced, layered characterisation – which is part of the point, since this is literally all about his character, and the last story dips back into his 1980s teenage years and the original sin that has warped his subsequent life. The neatest irony is that Goodman’s crime was in not doing anything, rather than in being an active participant in a bullying cruelty – you just know that the school-uniformed thug who was really responsible for the awful prank has lived out his life with no trouble sleeping and shrugged off the damage done to other people, while Goodman (whose Jewishness is stressed) has torn himself to mental shreds and plunged into a spiral of terrors visited, Scrooge-like, by three case histories. Another new layer is the disappearance of a previous debunker, who summons Goodman to a vile caravan and passes on the folders which lead to night watchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and well-heeled stockbroker Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), who recount their own brushes with ghosts (and demons) and are variously traumatised but hold back secrets which only make sense when the characters are revisited later.
The individual stories are situations rather than the well-turned tales Robert Bloch or EC Comics provided the Amicus films – all involve characters who get big frights, but have as much trouble at home as they do out in the shadows or the woods. There’s a lot of black comedy – though Whitehouse, known for comedy, reins it in and surprisingly goes for a mix of hostility and regret which is quite affecting – and a sense throughout that the whole stories are not being told. The stunt manifestations draw on classic horror, with the influence of film and TV MR James adaptations and Nigel Kneale horrors especially apparent – a heaping of sheets in a crib, a blurry figure in the back of frame, a faceless doll, fingers slipped in mouths, a shaggy and horned halfman in the woods, a screaming looming woman, a never-seen inhuman baby. It also finds terror in Anthony Newley’s jaunty ‘Why’, teenage savagery, nagging guilt and the hum and tick of medical machinery. Perhaps the most self-aware and self-referential British horror film since Gothic, this digs deep into the ghost story tradition – and shuffles through the drifting sheets, clanking chains and wailing spectres (plus a new-minted reveal that owes a little to Sleuth) to get to the guilts, losses and regrets which really haunt us, stepping out of the paradoxically cosy horrors Nyman and Dyson obviously love to grapple with even darker material.