Though it takes a while to really find it’s footing, when it does, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s horror anthology, Ghost Stories, lives up to the hype it gathered on the festival circuit. The film plays with genre tricks and tropes, with varying degrees of success, but when the filmmakers finally break free, it builds into a clever and inventive crescendo.
Part of my delayed appreciation is that I’m not overly fond of the anthology format—a bunch of shorter narratives held together with a larger frame story. I do have favorites in the genre—Creepshow, Twilight Zone—but the modern glut, like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, don’t hold my attention for the most part.
The narrative scaffolding revolves around Phillip Goodman (Nyman doing double duty), a professor and professional skeptic who makes a career out of publicly exposing paranormal frauds. When his childhood inspiration hands him three cases that supposedly prove the supernatural, he sets out on a mission to debunk his hero.
The first story revolves around a night watchman who experiences a haunting at his job, working at an abandoned asylum, at night. Number two involves a nerdy, occult-obsessed young man who may have had an encounter with a demon in the woods. Rounding out the trilogy, Goodman investigates the case of a businessman (Martin Freeman), tormented by a poltergeist while waiting for the birth of his child.
On their own, these pieces are fine, playing with standard horror elements. Come on, of course you’re going to see some spooky shit working the graveyard shift at an old loony bin. Nyman and Dyson go hard on the atmosphere. They’re reasonably eerie, have some nice jolts, and enjoy wallowing in genre tricks. Despite some nice creature effects, the second chapter is easily the weakest link. It never truly connects to the larger narrative like the other segments.
While they’re watchable enough, these cases are supposed to challenge Goodman’s skepticism. On screen, we see his belief start to crumble, but the story never fully earns it. He basically just listens to people tell spooky stories and sees little to no proof. Especially with what he’s witnessed over his career, there’s no reason why these particular cases shake him. It eventually comes around at the end, but it’s difficult to buy for much of the runtime.
Overall, the structural conceit hampers Ghost Stories, especially at first. It’s like the movie has to get through these smaller asides before it can become the movie it really wants to be, which is Goodman’s story. Again, it ultimately does come full circle and link back in a thematic and practical way. It’s about a skeptic becoming less skeptical, and how every action, about how all of our pasts have consequences and leave a lasting mark. But it takes far too long to get there, which lessens the impression a great deal.
Eventually, shit just gets weird. The three cases are all conventional horror yarns, but when the frame story, Goodman’s story, kicks in, the true passion and narrative ingenuity of Ghost Stories come to the forefront. The final 20 minutes are inventive and off-kilter, and tinker with time and memory, the weight of our personal histories, perception, and lingering guilt. It’s effective, impactful, and unique.
Ghost Stories really watches like two distinct ideas unevenly stitched together. And I can’t help but wish Dyson and Nyman had abandoned the episodic approach. The third unit dovetails nicely into the larger frame story. But the second chapter plays like like space filler, and while the first is creepy and carries thematic weight, it’s largely unnecessary to the main purpose. It could easily have been Goodman investigating the businessman’s case, witnessing things that rattle his beliefs, and diving into the deep end as it does. This would leave space to explore his past, which are by far the most interesting bits. One event from his personal history has room to develop, but others only get hints and glimpses. I found myself wishing the film focused more on developing these elements than the more formulaic horror threads.
None of this is to say Ghost Stories is bad. Taken individually, the chapters are decent horror tales. A bit ho-hum and been-there-done-that, but watchable. The problem is, when it’s good, it’s fantastic, but juxtaposed against the highs, the rest looks lackluster in comparison. But this is also Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s first feature. They pull off a clever, at times eye-popping narrative feat, show infinite promise, and are definitely filmmakers to keep an eye on. [Grade: B]