“We have to be so very careful what we believe in.”
It’s always good news when a new horror anthology film comes along. Ideally, the films themselves will be good (Tales of Halloween) or great (Trick ‘r Treat), but even the mediocre ones (Holidays, seriously, “Father’s Day” is brilliant) often feature one or two fantastic segments. There’s just something appealing about short bursts of terror, especially when they’re tied together in a fun, creepy package. Ghost Stories has its ups and downs storywise, but there’s no denying the entertaining and unsettling nature of its package.
Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is a professional skeptic who’s spent his adult life debunking claims of supernatural and psychic activity. The dual inspirations for his career choice were his cruelly religious father and Prof. Charles Cameron. The TV personality introduced Philip to the idea of people pretending the supernatural exists for their own selfish purposes, but he became his own mystery when he went missing in the 70s. It’s something of a shock when the professor contacts Phillip out of the blue, but he’s only just getting started.
He wants three cases investigated — three cases he could never explain to his satisfaction — so Phillip goes looking for answers and interviews three people. Tony Matthews is a night watchman who recounts an evening where something haunted his overnight shift, Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) is a teen who recalls a night drive where he hit something on a deserted road, and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) shares the traumatic story of his child’s birth. Unfortunately for Phillip, he finds only terror, fear, and a horrifying truth.
Ghost Stories first found life as a stage play, and its creators, Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, return as co-writers/directors. The film’s greatest strength is its framing device that sees a stone-cold skeptic slowly unravel through the tales he’s hearing. He starts seeing things, but are they portents of his future or fragments from his past?
The three tales, though, vary in their effect with the first being the weakest. It’s wholly straightforward, predictable, and underwhelming, but where that segment dulls the second excels. Lawther’s teen is jumpy and nervous, and both his home life and the flashback to his experience offer unsettling beats and creepy fun. His parents are odd (or are they?), and the locked door in his room is even stranger (or is it?), and his actual story delivers with solid scares, spooky imagery, and a big laugh. The third tale regresses a bit due less to what’s there than what isn’t. It feels entirely abbreviated as elements involving a poltergeist and the baby itself are kept far too minimal.
Judged strictly on its story segments Ghost Stories would be a lesser effort, but it’s rescued by the path Phillip takes through it all. His journey becomes the most effective and affecting ghost story of them all, and Nyman’s performance displays a maelstrom of grief, guilt, and nerve-shredding fear. His shift from indifference to confusion to terror carries viewers through the low points like spooky footprints in the sand, and he becomes the living embodiment of the film’s recurring theme — “the brain sees what it wants to see.”
Ghost Stories‘ third act shenanigans (which won’t be spoiled here) will probably be make it or break it time for some viewers, but they work beautifully to elevate what works and salvage the parts that don’t resulting in an often delirious blend of scares, thrills, and nervous laughs. Ghosts, demons, and other waking nightmares fill the screen, but not all of the things that haunt us come from beyond. Some are born much closer to home.