Ghost Stories

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/27/18 13:29:53

"Three solidly suspenseful stories."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: "Ghost Stories" is an effective anthology of sorts, the cinematic equivalent of variations on a theme that certainly has room to play. It perhaps puts a little too much effort into giving itself a clever twist in the last stretch so that it can be a feature rather than a set of short stories, but the three episodes that make up the bulk of the film are impressive on their own, combining classic supernatural situations with humans' willingness to scare themselves.

That's the explanation offered by Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman), introduced shooting a documentary meant to debunk "psychic star" Mark van Rhys (Nicholas Burns). Goodman was inspired by another paranormal investigator, Charles Cameron, who faded from public view decades ago. A mysterious message summons Goodman to meet his mentor, and he's handed three cases that the old man wasn't able to completely debunk: Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a former security guard who saw something at a shuttered mental hospital; Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a teenager who hasn't been the same since his parents' car broke down on the way back from a party; and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), whose unused nursery has allegedly been haunted by a poltergeist since the loss of his wife (Emily Carding).

These are all elemental, well-worn tales of the supernatural; there's nothing in the main three or the initial framing sequence of skeptics wrestling with their own expectations that horror fans haven't seen before, and even those that don't consume large amounts of spooky stuff can recall a tale or two around those general themes. Filmmakers Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman don't necessarily break new ground with the specific stories, but they've built themselves situations where they don't need to: With each getting twenty-five minutes or so, they've got just enough room to stick to the basics, add in a few memorable details, and then get out before things start to collapse. It's the right amount of detail to keep things ambiguous, too, with nothing that would necessarily convince a skeptic but plenty to freak a person out.

And despite coming at these stories from a place of doubt, Dyson & Nyman nevertheless prove very adept at raising goosebumps. Each of the three main stories has at least one terrifically-executed set piece, often but not always in flashback, and it is generally not harmed by Goodman revisiting it. They're clever with using contrasts - Goodman meets Matthews in a cozy seaside pub, the seeming opposite of the isolated and run-down asylum, but there's a similar emptiness - and each environment is distinctive, not to mention unnerving in its own way. If the filmmakers wanted to, they could split this into a few episodes of a very good television series or set of short films.

It would have a strong cast, both "regular" and "guest". Nyman takes the main role that runs from start to end, and it's a memorable persona; Goodman is abrasive in way that those who have had to deal with overbearing skeptics will likely find familiar, with more than a whiff of condescension but not so much that his earnest curiosity is in doubt, just enough hubris to make him interesting. It helps that he's not always driving; Paul Whitehouse and Alex Lawther do fine jobs as folks scared enough that pulling a story out of Tony and Simon is difficult, with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith giving a short but memorable performance as a priest with little practical use for guys like Goodman. Martin Freeman is probably the most recognizable part of the cast, especially outside of the United Kingdom, and the filmmakers seem to play on this, seemingly saving him for the last act so Nyman's character has someone the audience immediately recognizes as being worth verbally sparring with. He's able to add pathos to a seemingly glib, privileged character and peel away some layers as the last case inevitably turns into something Goodman isn't prepared for.

That's the point where Ghost Stories could either solidify itself as an all-time great or potentially lose some of the audience, and it sort of winds up halfway between the two cases, although it could go either way based on what someone likes their ghost stories to deliver Here, Dyson & Nyman opt to go for something a little stronger than a loose thematic tie between stories, and while the narrative that emerges as a result isn't bad at all, it might perhaps work better as a fourth story alongside the other three, tying them together by fleshing Goodman out and showing how he approached them. Instead, it goes a direction that undermines as much as it supports.

Fortunately, this movie is built in a way that majority-rules rating can come into effect, and at least three-quarters of these "Ghost Stories" are pretty darn terrific. If the last bit works for you - and, I'll freely admit, it's the sort of turn of the plot I tend to dislike on general principle anyway - there's a good chance you'll find this one an all-time great.

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