Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Writer: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Producer: Claire Jones, Robin Gutch
Stars: Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman, Nicholas Burns, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jake Davies
Three frightening case files compel a disbelieving professor to reconsider his skepticism of the supernatural.
It’s a great sign you’re in creatively capable hands when a movie establishes all the background you could want on a main character without spoken dialogue or obvious handholding. Turning their hit London stage play into a feature film, co-writers/co-directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman begin “Ghost Stories” with a flashback montage of Professor Philip Goodman’s bar mitzvah. Through what looks like throwaway clips accompanying opening credits, silent home movies paint a remarkably robust portrait of a childhood steeped in strict Judaism while shadowed by an overbearing father, details seeded to play important parts later.
Dyson and Nyman possess subtle storytelling style in spades. This quick hit barely adds a snowflake to their iceberg’s tip.
“Ghost Stories” dresses itself as a classically creepy collection of terror tales, but it really serves as a brief biography for its tour guide Philip. Somewhat snooty about scientific superiority, Philip is a skeptic of the supernatural who has made a career out of dashing people’s beliefs in the afterlife and psychic phenomenon.
When the reformed debunker he modeled himself after, psychologist Charles Cameron, challenges Philip to reconsider his reasoning, Philip strikes out alone to investigate three purportedly paranormal case files Charles couldn’t crack. The individuals interviewed force Philip to confront his skewed views on religion, reality, and a secret from his past that has found a new way to haunt him.
“Ghost Stories” features a freshly novel concept for framing an anthology, where the bookends aren’t just bookends, they ingeniously motivate each piece of the movie as more than a mere narrative device. Philip’s collective journey has philosophical value as a reflection on life, death, and human perception of those two concepts. For better or for worse, those themes don’t run terribly deep though. Metaphors mostly evaporate as “Ghost Stories” creatively structures itself as a chilling thriller for delivering straightforward supernatural spooks.
The wraparound is the main attraction, and it’s where Dyson and Nyman’s screenplay shines. Philip’s gumshoe work takes more than one dark turn. Unexpected revelations around those corners keep the audience’s attention tuned to a uniquely crafted world where no possibility is off the table. The best bits of fiction are saved exclusively for these sequences, with the film focusing on Philip practically to a fault.
The main narrative stays so satisfying, it’s a shame the three stories it surrounds don’t reflect the same inspired cleverness. All three cases Philip investigates are forgettable save for what few breadcrumbs tie back to his arc. Essentially, each of the shorts boils down to a vanilla variation on a lone man flinching at sounds in the darkness.
The first segment, “Tony Matthews,” sits its titular night watchman down for a great deal of unnecessary exposition occurring in both the past and the present. When Tony finally gets up to investigate a power outage in the abandoned asylum where he works, all that sitting becomes a lot of hallway creeping as Tony repeatedly sweeps a flashlight beam across mannequin torsos before a ghost girl finally appears to an audio sting.
“Simon Rifkind” follows the same formula, merely trading the man for a boy and the apparition for a creature when a teenager becomes stranded in the woods. As stale as the setup is, the segment stands out solely for Alex Lawther’s absolutely engrossing portrayal of the psychologically broken boy at its center. “Black Mirror” fans will remember Lawther as a blackmailed masturbator in the “Shut Up and Dance” episode. Lawther is even more pitiably disturbing here, nearly stealing the movie with his terrific performance, which is not an easy feat when Martin Freeman toplines the cast.
Speaking of Freeman, he similarly saves his segment through pure personality endearment. From man in building to man in forest, “Mike Priddle” brings us to man in house for another tame tale of a poltergeist knocking over knick knacks before a beast shouts boo so the piece can end on another jump scare.
Devil’s Advocate could argue that “Creepshow 2’s” memorable “The Hitchhiker” segment uses a simple setup too. But the three stories nested inside “Ghost Stories” don’t have the energetic imagination to bump over the hump of being beige.
What disappoints most about the film’s inconsistent interior tales is that its exterior execution lays a foundation for “Ghost Stories” to have been a horror anthology all-timer. If two, maybe even just one of the three shorts had sharper bite, we might be talking about the movie in those terms. With what “Ghost Stories” does have on hand, it’s good for a one-time go, although once its secrets are out of the bag, substance lacks legs for longevity.
Review Score: 65