Spoilers for Ghost Stories below.
Ghost Stories begins deceptively simply. Professor Phillip Goodman (played by Andy Nyman, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Jeremy Dyson), a James Randi-esque figure, receives a set of three supposedly supernatural incidents to investigate. Right away, the film’s structure seems to be set for us: The three cases will comprise three acts, with each presumably featuring a neat answer as to whether or not the supernatural phenomena was real. Goodman seems to think so, too — at least, until he actually starts taking a closer look.
Financier Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) is the subject of the last case. Straight off the bat, there’s a disorienting edge to his story. He tells it with a blasé kind of ease, even stopping periodically to check his mobile as he tells the story of his haunting, the death of his wife, and the birth of their possibly inhuman child. “No one believed [the baby] would survive this long, but somehow, life finds a way,” he says with a huff of laughter. “That’s what I’ve learned. Life goes on.”
And then, without warning, he shoots himself.
Priddle’s suicide takes Goodman’s relatively passive role in the story and vaults him suddenly into being a very active participant. It turns horror into psycho-horror, and turns the film itself on its head as the three puzzle pieces unfold into a fourth, final act. Here’s how it all came together.
“He said was that there was a hint of [the 1972 film] Sleuth to it,” Freeman says, recalling Nyman’s initial pitch when he’d sent him the script. It’s an apt comparison, given the way that Priddle and Goodman meet, and that the Priddle in flashbacks seems like a completely different person, pulling the wool over Goodman’s eyes until that horrifying final moment. It’s a reference that Nyman makes again while discussing his and Dyson’s approach to building Ghost Stories into the puzzle box that it is: “I remember reading a Sleuth review that said, ‘I envy those who haven’t seen this film,’ and I thought, ‘That’s so perfect!’ … We live in a world where there’s a lot of miserable shit going on. We’d love to be able to make something that transports you, and really gives you a physical thrill. That’s an amazing thing to have.”
Again, as in Sleuth, the nuances in the performances — in Freeman’s, in this case — play a key part in the twist, as the gradual change in his character’s bearings is part of what eases the film into true horror. Priddle becomes harder and harder to read, his glibness increasingly at odds with the horrifying tale he’s telling, to the point that he becomes unsettlingly macabre.
“You’re given license to just play the moment,” Freeman says, speaking of the film’s shift to Goodman’s perspective, “because it will make sense, because it has to only make sense to this person …Certainly as I was reading it, I was like, ‘What the hell is happening?’ And I think the first time people see it, there’s no sense to that anymore. There’s no logical sense there. You are purely in the realm of paranoia and fear. You’re in the realm of the senses, to quote another film.”
It’s the idea of subjective fear that’s also crucial to making Priddle’s suicide an affecting moment for the audience, as well as for Goodman. We see and experience the haunting from his perspective; the horror that he feels is the same as ours. “[When] you see anyone at a vulnerable point, or in fear or in grief, whoever they are, your heart goes out to them,” Freeman points out. Indeed, even though Priddle isn’t the most likeable of men, seeing him as vulnerable as he is when enduring his haunting is a moment that innately begs for empathy.
That subjectivity is also reflected in the film’s score, composed by Haim Frank Ilfman (who, incidentally, Nyman first met via Twitter). “We ended up having this 43-piece orchestra,” Nyman recalls. “We wanted to tell a classic story and have something that didn’t feel like a little British film — something that felt grand, because there’s something grand about the story.” To elaborate, he cites Lucio Fulci, saying, “There’s just a sort of ‘fuck you’ about his films, that is, ‘Good or bad, hate it or love it, this is the film I’m making.’ There are moments that are just so ridiculously awful, but within those moments, you just can’t believe the chutzpah of them, the boldness of them, and that was one of the things we talked about with Frank. We’re going for it, so we might as well go for it.” In accordance, the score that accompanies the big shock in Ghost Stories abandons the muted string arrangements of the first two acts, giving way to a wild, wailing, operatic choral piece.
It’s an ethos that extends to the film’s effects, which were all done practically. In the scene in Priddle’s home, for example, the objects that the poltergeist sends flying across the nursery were actually physically rigged to move, instead of being added in postproduction. “[CG] creates a disconnect, and we wanted to avoid that,” Dyson explains. “For the cast on set, they’re reacting to something that’s actually happening to them, and you get a different quality, at least that’s what we felt. […] And we’re not Luddites, where the technology is fantastic is taking stuff away, which is a great magic trick in itself.”
As for the practical effects that went into the gunshot, all Freeman offers is, “I didn’t really shoot myself.” He adds, jokingly, “I made a quick recovery.”
In the end, Ghost Stories’ success all seems to come down to magic — literally. Nyman is an accomplished magician, and cites a love of magic as one of the reasons that he and Dyson became best friends at age 15. And, in explaining how the two of them built up the film to this dramatic twist, the story seems to come full circle. “There’s a great thing in magic called a dual reality,” Nyman says. “You’re leading an audience to believe one thing is happening, and it feels very real. And when you revisit that thing with that second piece of knowledge, you realize the lies you had told yourself, which is the most powerful form of misdirection. I’ve said XYZ to you, and you make that into ABC, and it’s once you go back that you go, ‘Fuck! Oh my god!’”
In other words, Ghost Stories is the kind of movie that warrants revisiting. Even when you know what’s coming, there’s plenty of magic left.