The last time I can remember being properly scared by something I saw in the cinema was in 2002 when I saw Takashi Miike’s Audition, and subsequently I’ve concluded that this is a result of two things. First of all, it was right on the cusp of the internet really being used for information and social networking, so it was still entirely possible to view a film completely blind without even so much as a review or trailer crossing your path prior to seeing it; and secondly, it was perhaps the first truly extreme film I’d experienced on the big screen, and boy did it really run me through the ringer. Unfortunately for me this was twelve years ago, and I have now sort of given up on ever repeating such an experience. Sure, in the intervening years I would come across the likes of Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat whose films would immediately make me want to shower after viewing. To get another thing straight I’m not a completely unfeeling and cold hearted bitch, I still shed a tear whenever I watch Dumbo, so films are still capable of making me feel something… it’s just that scared apparently isn’t one of them.
When I heard about Ghost Stories I was very intrigued. They have done a stellar job with the marketing campaign, and the hush-hush secrecy around not divulging information about what happens in the show definitely works to its benefit. It is capitalising on the way that horror can work when the audience goes in knowing little or nothing of what will happen. This of course builds a great amount of tension, because as we all know what you imagine is always worse than the reality, so by the time everyone is finally sat in the auditorium they are wound as tightly as a spring, making the tension in the air palpable. I’d seen The Woman in Black a few years back and knew it was possible to pull off effective horror on stage, so I went in genuinely a bit creeped out and excited to perhaps see something different, and who knows, maybe even be a little scared.
After years of waiting I was really hoping to relive that moment I had last experienced back in 2002. So, did Ghost Stories scare me? The answer is a resounding no.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the appeal of mainstream horror (Insidious, The Conjuring etc.) and how these films play up to genre conventions in a predictable way because they aren’t aimed at horror fans, but instead at an audience unaware of the common tricks and tropes rolled out ad nauseam, who can still be easily tricked into the jump scares. I tend to watch a lot of movies at press screenings, on DVD or at film festivals, and when I do venture out to the cinema I employ my tactical selection process (early screenings on weekends, a week or so after release date) to avoid the kinds of people who annoy me, so I’ve avoided being too aware of what mainstream audiences are like when viewing horror. Recently, however, I was at a screening with a mixed group of press, competition winners and industry types and their families, and before the film we were shown the trailer for Insidious 2 (a film that I found to be dull and entirely groan worthy) and the audience freaked the fuck out… and it was only the trailer! I was genuinely shocked by the reaction and it seemed unbelievable that people could react so viscerally to something on the screen.
Now, when I saw the audience reaction clips on the Ghost Stories website (see the trailer below) I was pretty dubious, it seemed awfully hyperbolic, but after my recent Insidious 2 experience I was also slightly apprehensive at the prospect of spending two hours with a group of wailing morons. Unfortunately that’s exactly what did happen; people were screaming, hiding behind their hands and jumping out of their seats, for no good reason that I could understand. Although at one point the narrator did ask the audience how many of them genuinely believed in ghosts and at least half raised their hands – so clearly I was just surrounded by idiots.
So why am I telling you all of this? Well mostly it’s filler, all because we were asked not to talk about what happens during the play. I have seen some fairly positive reviews in the press and again I can’t help but wonder if it’s because theatre critics probably don’t spend most of their time watching horror films, so again fall into that category of being able to buy into the tried and tested conventions laid out on stage for us here. Admittedly there were some clever tricks and some smoke and mirrors type effects that worked well, and Scott Penrose did a mostly great job with the effects – in particular a scene with a night watchman whose office moved around on stage to give the perception of the space being much larger. Nick Manning’s sound design is also very effective and quite eerie in places.
The play is a sort of portmanteau series of ghost stories populated with wholly unlikeable characters that rely on cheap jokes, and each segment plays out in a near identical fashion. I had high hopes from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, who are both clearly fans of the genre and whose previous work I’ve admired, but Ghost Stories feels like a narrative cop-out that uses predictability and unoriginality to play successfully to the masses. Perhaps I’m just too cynical and desensitised these days, but overall I was very disappointed and more than a little annoyed by the time I emerged.
Ghost Stories is currently on at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End