★★★★ out of ★★★★★ Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
A tense and twisty semi-anthology of paranormal de-bunking whose fateful ending makes you rewind the the events of the film when you’re walking out of the theater in this clever British offering.
This was a movie that was showing at the Overlook Film Festival, which I passed over in favor of Beast, since both of them were screening at the same time. I picked the wrong movie to preview. While Beast may have been a compelling drama, it failed to be scary in the slightest. Ghost Stories, on the other hand, quickly got into the spooky stuff and kept the pressure on. When I asked people at the festival what their favorite films were, this one often came up in the discussion. This film took on some pretty well-worn ideas but executed them extremely well. There are true, EARNED jump scares, and some fantastic revelations that defied what could have been a predictable script.
Andy Nyman, who co-directed this film, also plays the lead protagonist, Professor Phillip Goodman, a de-bunker of phony mystics and hoaxes. He has taken a lot of pride in disproving charlatans and is a staunch believer of the provable. He is summoned to meet one of his idols, Charles Cameron, a master truth teller from the 80’s, who confides that he has three cases which he could not debunk. These are dead files that Cameron could not prove wrong, and he wants Goodman to investigate these three stories and validate that he speaks the truth… that the paranormal is real, and all of their efforts to disprove the stories are for naught.
MINOR PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD
Each of the three stories plays out like an anthology, as Goodman interviews each of the witnesses to paranormal horrors. The first tale is that of cantankerous Tony (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman at a mostly abandoned women’s asylum. Why they need a night watchman there is never really explained… but the location is tremendously effective. All of the usual suspects for hauntings are used in this segment, but it’s done so very well, as it makes you feel trapped with the watchman.
The second tale follows a young man, Simon (Alex Rifkind), who has an untimely encounter with a goat demon, and has descended into deep paranoia about the creature. Goodman starts to get indications that something in the household isn’t right, as the young man’s parents seem to be apparitions themselves, and the boy’s rants become wild and contradictory. Rifkind’s panicky and paranoid portrayal of Simon was stellar, and did much to enhance the general edginess of this storyline.
The final case had a different vibe to it. For me, some of that is due tot he fact that it features a very familiar face in Martin Freeman, who this time out is playing a little against type. His Mike Priddle is a prophetic business trader with swaggering confidence and poise. He spells out his story to Goodman, that his expectant wife was hospitalized late into her pregnancy with their first child. Concurrently, a poltergeist inhabited Priddle’s swanky mansion, and foretold an inevitable doom. Priddle’s calm and matter of fact recollection of his trauma ran counter to that of both Tony and Simon’s cases, which left them as psychological wrecks.
The film to this point had played out like an anthology, with three distinct and separate stories that were only loosely stitched together, by the fact that they were all being investigated. But There weren’t any overlaps of character or setting, so they were less episodic as a result. But then the through-line appeared. The directors managed to stealthily plant foreshadowing throughout the first four acts of the drama that all return back to the forefront in act five. The earlier elements were subtle enough that you recognized the sleight, but not so glaring that signaled “pay attention to me!”
This is a movie that bears repeat viewing. It has a dramatic turn that re-frames the entire film, and I found myself leaving the theater and realizing… “OHHHHH, that’s what that was in reference to!” I will suggest that the film, despite the connective tissue that arrives at the conclusion does feel disjointed, an assemblage of a bunch of good ideas that were developed independently. The individual cases are also familiar to anyone who has watched many ghost story movies, but each one is very well crafted, and superbly acted. Nyman pulls off a Richard Dreyfuss / Paul Giamatti every-man skeptic with aplomb, and the conclusion to his tale is one for the record books.
Ghost Stories is not rated, but would probably merit a PG-13, if not for some language. It is however, a very intense movie, and would probably not be good for younger teens or kids. Consider the Ring, The Sixth Sense, and The Conjuring as decent comparable films. It is currently in limited release in the US, and has been in wide release in Britain since April. If it isn’t playing in a theater near you, this would be a fine gateway movie to watch on your favorite streaming service.