April 1, 2018 Ghost Stories (Movie Review)
Spoiler alert: Ghost Stories is actually about werewolves! Okay, not really: Ghost Stories was originally a 2010 stage play from London’s West End, where it earned itself an Olivier Award nomination. Its playwrights, Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen series, Crackanory series) and lead actor Andy Nyman (Kick-Ass 2 2013, The Commuter 2018), then decided to adapt it into a film. Shot in 2016, it made its UK debut in October 2017 before appearing in the US at SXSW on March 11, 2018, and will also be screening at NYC’s WHAT THE FEST!? on March 31st, making a New York premiere. Now, thanks to IFC Midnight, it will receive a theatrical as well as On Demand release as of April 20, 2018, but what is it all about? The short answer is “ghosts,” but the long answer is the following synopsis.
Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman), a skeptical psychologist, receives a file from his former mentor Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne: Dead Man’s Shoes 2004, Turn Your Bloody Phone Off short). It contains the details of three men plagued by the paranormal: Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse: The Fast Show series, The Death of Stalin 2018), Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman: The Office UK series, Black Panther 2018) and Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther: Black Mirror series, The Imitation Game 2014). Cameron challenges Goodman to debunk all three cases, but can he do it? Will his Occam’s Razor cut through the fluff, or will he have to concede that the supernatural is real?
So, Ghost Stories is a Horror anthology film like 1982’s Creepshow, but with the smaller stories connecting to a main plot about Goodman. The individual stories are about the men dealing with their traumas, then Goodman trying to deal with all three on top of his own emotional baggage. Each man deals with his issues in his own way: Whitehouse’s Matthews is shaken but he is just about holding together, while Lawther’s Riftkind is falling apart at the seams over his experience. Freeman’s Priddle puts on a tough front, but, well, that might be all it is. They are all strong, convincing performances too, though Whitehouse’s role may be the surprise for UK audiences; as he is more known for his sketch Comedy roles than his serious ones, so him portraying a sterner, grief-stricken character is not so common.
From the synopsis, one could think it was a British live-action Scooby Doo – but without the dog or old weed jokes – though Ghost Stories is less direct than that. Nyman’s Goodman is certainly way less chipper than Fred, Velma and the gang. His devotion to debunking masks some personal hang-ups, and he does not do well when they are challenged; he may be just as haunted as the others, but he deals with it through denial over booze, bravado or superstition. Nyman does a good job at showing how that façade gets put under pressure.
Dyson knows his Horror, and it shows in the direction: Kubrickian corridors meet Raimi-esque monsters, Hitchcock references meet touches of Wiene, amongst others. However, these references are not placed randomly as a wink and a nudge to the audience: each does an effective job at building up tension, defying expectation, and bringing the scares. Not bad for a film shot over the 2016 Halloween weekend, but then this is not exactly a cheap production. It does not have the glitz of the Sherlock series, but its camera quality and visual effects do not break the illusion either; it remains smooth and convincing throughout.
However, there is a problem in the overall story, though it is largely strong with a surprising climax. It is just a shame it is not as nuanced in its attitude towards skepticism. It is hard to balance out myths with myth-busting, but it is not impossible: 1957’s Curse of the Demon by Jacques Tourneur managed to keep the audience guessing on the demon’s authenticity right until the end. In Ghost Stories, skeptics are losers that break people’s illusions under the guise of ‘helping’; they try to explain away the unexplainable, but only end up suffering in their attempts to do so. Of course, that is just one interpretation and it may just be attributing that solely to Goodman. Yet if the story gave the audience a reason to think twice on each case, it could have been stronger altogether; it might have even made an already interesting twist even more intriguing. As it is, it feels like it is firing on all but one cylinder; it has power, but not as much as it should have.
However, Ghost Stories is a fine package overall. The acting is on point, as is the brilliant camerawork. It foreshadows events as effectively as it emphasises the scares. The script could have shone brighter, but it is still top quality with its build-up and storytelling. It is just that it is uneven lean means it will find better favor with neutral audiences or paranormal enthusiasts, while skeptics could take a point off the score for this approach. Though if they can keep a cool head, they should agree with CrypticRock in giving Ghost Stories 4 out of 5 stars.