Written and Directed by: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Starring: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, and Paul Whitehouse
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The mind sees what it wants to see.
Stepping into the arena of the British horror anthology takes some kind of guts, as it requires a brave soul to essentially tread into the shadows of genre titans. It’s not that the country has a rich history in the format—it’s arguable that it perfected it through the efforts of Amicus Productions, the long-running outfit that often pressed legendary stars like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Donald Pleasance into the service of their macabre tales. Undaunted by such a monumental legacy, Jeremy Dyson and Adam Nyman have entered the fray with Ghost Stories, an adaptation of their own stage play that proves to be a mixed bag for the format, offering both some unexpected, intriguing wrinkles and familiar routines in nearly equal measure. Ultimately, it splits the difference: this is a really nice, sturdily crafted take on an old standard that doesn’t do much to shake the feeling that it’s a bit too derivative.
What works is the hook: initially pitched as a sort of mockumentary, it follows the exploits of Phillip Goodman (Nyman), a college professor and star of a television show devoted to exposing fraudulent psychics and other charlatans. Inspired by famous 1970s skeptic Charles Cameron (who himself became a mystery after his sudden disappearance), Goodman masterfully uncovers scams, to the point where his fame travels reaches the most unexpected heights imaginable: inexplicably, Cameron himself—now a frail old man living alone in a seaside caravan—gathers word of his talents and summons Goodman for a meeting. In a stunning turn of events, the elderly master reveals that three unsolved cases have driven him to the other side, away from skepticism; insistent that the supernatural does exist, he challenges Cameron to prove him wrong by solving the cases himself, a task that slowly causes the younger skeptic’s mind to unravel.
Referring to anthologies as a “mixed bag” is rather common, but Ghost Stories is the rare portmanteau where the frame story is genuinely engaging, in this case even more so than the segments themselves. In fact, I’m not quite sure I’ve ever said that about an anthology effort before, which immediately puts this one on the radar at least. Nyman’s Goodman is instrumental here, as he makes for a compelling center: he’s introduced exposing a TV psychic who preys on people who have lost loved ones, immediately establishing the skeptic’s basic decency. Goodman doesn’t come from a place of haughty smugness; instead, he’s driven by a genuine concern for victims of these frauds. It makes for an interesting dynamic, especially for a British horror anthology, as that scene has so often been a vehicle to witness despicable characters meet their deserved—and often grisly—comeuppance at the hands of supernatural forces.
Ghost Stories takes a decidedly different approach though, as each of its segment’s leads are decent—or at least sympathetic—folks who have encountered some very strange shit. A night-watchman (Paul Whitehouse)—now reduced to a drunken lout—describes a bizarre episode involving a spirit while on patrol, while a teen (Alex Lawther) recounts a harrowing experience with a demonic creature in the woods. Finally, a wealthy financer (Martin Freeman) describes the tragic circumstances surrounding his wife’s death and the poltergeist that haunted his home shortly thereafter. On paper at least, it’s a nice collection of tales boasting a nice variety of content, style, and tone, allowing each segment to bring its own flavor, just as one really craves from this format.
However, it’s also tough to say those flavors don’t taste a little bit too familiar, too; I’ll stop quite short of considering them stale, if only because each segment is so exquisitely fashioned. Dyson and Nyman are almost exceedingly cautious in their meticulous craftsmanship: Ghost Stories is a film that thrives on ominous camerawork, subtle sound design, and timely jolts, very much out of the vintage horror mold. But despite some sprightly bits—be it spooky ambience, a cool creature design, and a lively turn from Freeman—these segments come off as a little too restrained, as this stuffy aesthetic keeps them from truly springing to life to outrun their familiarity. Ultimately, you find yourself watching yet another movie with people skulking around in the dark, reacting to spooky noises and flickering lights, shrieking at strange creatures, and describing bizarre phenomena. Granted, it is well-made and worthwhile, but I’m left with the nagging sense that these tales never quite sing as well as they could, especially since Dyson and Nyman are also too hesitant to give up the ghost, resulting in clipped, deflating climaxes that feel like they’re missing a resolution.
To be fair, the segments eventually dovetail back into the frame story to offer an explanation for that. It’s here that Ghost Stories does attempt to introduce some nice wrinkles into the format by allowing Goodman’s own tale to blossom into an ordeal of his own. Throughout his three investigations, he’s forced to confront his own skepticism when he catches glimpses of bizarre visions himself, leading the audience to an intriguing internal conflict: just what does a skeptic do when he has no answers? Unfortunately, Ghost Stories sidesteps this altogether by resorting to another familiar trick, one that’s so hackneyed that it can trace its roots to a silent era classic that’s nearly a century old. It’s a disappointing turn that seals the film’s fate as a nice-looking, impeccably crafted work that somehow lands a little flat. “Mixed bag” comes to define it to the end, when the climactic reveal attempts to juggle both the playfulness and the existential dread borne from the twist. You’re not sure whether to force a wry smile and tip your hat or feel deeply unsettled by Goodman’s ultimate fate.
The strains of “Monster Mash” playing over the credits seemingly point you in the direction of the former. Had Ghost Stories actually earned such a send-off, it’d be a rousing little grace note; as it stands, it’s just another bewildering touch that leaves me wishing I didn’t feel so damned conflicted by it. The spirit of a wry, fun anthology lurks somewhere within the durable—but certainly well-worn—bones of Ghost Stories: for much of the film’s 98 minutes, you sense it trying to surface, only to find it stifled by familiarity and a misguided sense of restraint. By the time it does break loose, it’s a bit too late and short-lived, resulting in yet another familiar dilemma: a film that I very much want to love but only find myself respecting in its attempt to carry the torch for a proud legacy. To their credit, Dyson and Nyman don't completely fumble it, but they don't exactly reignite it, either.
Ghost Stories is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight.
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