Ghost Stories (Movie Review)

Ghost Stories (Movie Review)
7 10

PLOT: Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman), staunch skeptic of all things paranormal, must debunk three mysterious supernatural cases found in a long-buried file.

REVIEW: More often than not, sterling examples of orally shared spook stories are far less about the content of the tale than it is about HOW the tale is told. This is precisely the case with twistingly-spun new triptych horror omnibus GHOST STORIES, which is not only a compellingly competent piece of outright genre entertainment, but as a debut feature from actors-turned-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, is made all the more impressive by its high-level of execution. In other words, you’d never be able to guess this movie was made by a pair of tyros over the course of a single Halloween weekend in 2016. It’s that qualitatively assured. Yet, for as deceptively unoriginal as the three tales in the film lull you into recognizing, it’s the excitingly unpredictable wraparound narrative that not only atones for these perceived rote derivations, but also where you’re sure to find the highest quantity of genuinely unnerving enthrallment. Which, as it relates to anthological horror, is quite original. In the end, GHOST STORIES separates itself from the pack in how it is told, not necessarily in what it has to say!

Professor Philip Goodman has made a calling as a professional debunker of paranormal phenomena. As the film opens, we see his scientifically hewed investigative duties calling out one of the UK’s most popular yet fraudulent psychics, Mark van Rhys (Nicholas Burns), utterly exposing the man’s phony vocation in front of a crowd of stunned disbelievers. Soon after, Goodman receives a package and is summoned to visit a likeminded skeptic named Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), an ailing recluse who hands over a lost file he’s been secretly harboring for years. Inside the folder is a trio of mysterious cases that Cameron believes to be true, and that Goodman is challenged with proving to be total hogwash. Goodman accepts, somewhat reluctantly, and delves headlong into the curious casework. And so shall we…

Case 1: Tony Matthews. When Goodman arrives at a nearby pub, he meets with and listens to a story told by Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), night watchmen at an abandoned psych ward. It turns out Tony has been tormented by the ghost of a little girl, that may or may not be his daughter, roaming around the ward at night in a yellow dress. We then move into the visual depiction of the scenario, which is credibly and somewhat terrifyingly realized, even if the material itself doesn’t feel all that unique. Again, it’s the how, not the what, that makes this first tale, and its two successors for that matter, so endlessly fascinating.

Case 2: Simon Rifkind. Goodman shows up at the doorstep of a teenager named Simon (Alex Lawther), who’s ghastly tale no one will believe. When driving his dad’s car one night, Simon inadvertently runs down a creepily horned, white-skinned beast of some kind. Leaving it for dead, Simon’s car breaks down a few meters down the road, and while he waits for roadside assistance to reach his remotely wooded location, the cryptic creature aggressively accosts the kid until he’s forced to mount an escape on foot. Of the three standalone tales, this one is probably my favorite, as it mounts a sense of atmospheric dread in a way the others don’t quite measure up to. And while, as it relates to the grander pantheon of horror stories, it isn’t all that unseen, it’s an excellently crafted sequence nonetheless.

Case 3: Mike Priddle. Goodman comes face to face with Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a wealthy financier whose wife died during childbirth. Worse, the poltergeist of his stillborn baby has been haunting Priddle’s abode, malevolently animating a blank-faced doll Mike sentimentally keeps in a creepy baby-crib. I shan’t betray more than that, as it is here where the tree tales inevitably weave into what becomes the primacy of the wraparound yarn, revealing the actual GHOST STORIES to be a major plot contrivance that serves the opening and closing, rather than, as most anthologies adhere to, the other way around. The architectural redesign of the anthology itself, that’s what stands out most.

Indeed, what GHOST STORIES reveals itself to be is a powerfully pulled, psychologically puppeteering horror portmanteau. Whereas most films of its ilk use its two end-pieces secondarily to justify the various stories, here it’s the inverse. Dyson and Nyman have used their three central tales to function as fuel for the wraparound narrative, the particulars of which are arrestingly unlawful in the realm of horror anthologies. Rules are broken in the best way possible. You may very well be moved to gasps in its horror and laughs in its humor, but in the end, it’s the masterful manipulation of anthology structure itself that will likely strike you as most admirable. There is a stark originality here not in the material itself, but how it is divulged, which makes GHOST STORIES a refreshingly unique horror compendium. More impressive, in retrospect or even on second watch, Dyson and Nyman have left subtle clues and nuanced hints as to the nature of what they’re trying to achieve. Nothing feels forced, tacked-on or shoehorned in at the last minute, which is a relief. Pay attention, for as the tagline boasts, the brain sees what it wants to see.

The slick trickery of GHOST STORIES is one thing, but what makes it even more valuable is how all of it was made over the course of one weekend, by two men who never made a feature before. What’s more, Nyman also stars in the film as our primary conduit, Professor Goodman, and does so convincingly without ever indicating the true nature of his character or letting on too soon where he may end up. The camerawork here is sturdy and solid, often static, with imaginative angles and stunning imagery that never rings of first-time filmmaking. There’s also an appreciated amount of gallows humor in the film, in typical British fashion, which keeps the material from being too direly stuffy or one-dimensionally morbid. The bottom line is this: GHOST STORIES may sound generic, but it’s by design, and the terror isn’t in the tales themselves, but in the twisted telling!

Extra Tidbit: GHOST STORIES is currently in select theaters and on VOD



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