Uncanny wraiths aren’t the only spectres drifting through “Ghost Stories,” Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s stylish, chain-rattling adaptation of their 2010 British stage smash: The more explicable spirits of William Castle and Amicus Productions hang about, too, in its blend of old-school spookhouse scares and chilly psychological realism. A throwback to the rickety portmanteau structure so prevalent in U.K. horror in the mid-20th century, Nyman and Dyson’s debut feature works niftily as an anthology, threading a slender investigative narrative through a trio of anxious, economically executed tales of unnerving hauntings in contemporary Yorkshire. It’s when the film attempts to bind all three into a more ambitious head trip that things come unstuck: A climactic rug-pull that worked grandly on stage is less satisfying on screen, leaving the film less a banquet than a platter of tasty appetizers — served suitably cold, of course.
That said, it’s easy to see a small, dedicated cult building around “Ghost Stories,” which will be released Stateside by IFC Midnight after warm festival receptions in London and SXSW. Cinephilic horror-heads who share the filmmakers’ particular vintage B-movie affections will thrill to the low-key, lo-fi thrills on offer here; more tingly than terrifying, it’s not an exercise for genre fiends of a harder, more contemporary persuasion. British audiences, meanwhile, will be most in tune with the film’s cultural reference points and the dank, dilapidated Northern ambience it effectively cultivates. Dyson is best known domestically as a member of offbeat U.K. comedy collective The League of Gentlemen,” and a warped streak of his trademark humor is present here, if less prevalent than in the stage show.
While the three vignettes within the whole have been recast with more prominent names — with Martin Freeman, in the tricksiest role, the film’s biggest marquee attraction — the multi-tasking Nyman remains in place as the protagonist of the piece, spiritual skeptic Professor Philip Goodman. A loner raised in a strict, fractious Jewish family, he evidently channels much of the psychological baggage from his childhood into presenting a modestly popular TV show, “Psychic Cheats,” in which he exposes an assortment of professed mediums and ghost-hunters as exploitative frauds. Nyman and Dyson’s screenplay flickers with intriguing statements on religion and anti-Semitism, though never quite follows through.
Goodman’s firm conviction is unsettled, however, when a once like-minded psychologist presents him with three reports of unexplained supernatural encounters — and so the rattletrap ride begins. In the first, a jaded nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) is caught off his guard when a poltergeist seemingly makes its presence known in the creepily derelict psychiatric hospital he’s assigned to monitor; the second finds a nerve-raddled teenager (Alex Lawther, on terrifically haunted form) beset by an indeterminate demon on a nighttime drive through the woods. As a supercilious banker who finds his home spectrally invaded on the night his wife goes into labor, Freeman anchors the third, which is most heavily strewn with symbolic signposts and and keys toward the climax; the “Sherlock” star keeps his tongue teasingly in cheek throughout.
None of these scenarios is especially distinct or disquieting on paper: It’s the formal elegance with which Nyman and Dyson, with a wallop of an assist from their excellent cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, play up tension between the seen, the unseen and the shadow-shrouded that makes these uncomplicated setups screechily sing. Far from the prettily decayed Victoriana associated with the genre, “Ghost Stories” instead finds clammily tangible, tea-stained atmosphere in the squat, overcast plainness of British suburbia — its palette of bilious browns and greens giving way to red-slashed, silver-misted darkness when the ghosts gather.
As such, the film smartly honors and subtly expands the technical limits of its theatrical source, but still can’t quite pull off the dimension-switching leap required by its finale — flirting with, but ultimately pulling back from, a more avant-garde shift into the unconscious. One wonders if the recasting process should have extended to the lead: Engagingly befuddled at the outset, Nyman shortsells the emotional intensity of the later stages. There’s the phantom of a psychothriller for the ages inside “Ghost Stories” that never quite fights its way out of the film’s tightly structured creepshow homage, but the goosebumps it raises are real, and honestly earned.