Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories began its life as an 80-minute play shrouded in mystery at the Liverpool Playhouse, and we can see some of those theatrical roots in their new film. While Ghost Stories is very cinematic, there’s a dark melodrama to the proceedings that sets the film apart from many other horror anthologies. It’s also much better than most horror anthologies.
Nyman (whose best-known previous work is as collaborator with psychological illusionist Derren Brown) plays Professor Philip Goodman, a professional skeptic who’s built his career on debunking psychics and ghost whisperers. Though Goodman certainly believes he’s doing good work in this arena, exposing scam artists and revealing the cold, cynical truth behind their smoke and mirrors, Ghost Stories suggests otherwise. We first see Goodman expose a psychic right as the showboat is bringing comfort to a grieving mother who lost her son to leukemia. The mother sobs, hysterical and confused, as Goodman grandly denounces the small bit of solace she found for a fleeting moment. “Is this better than allowing yourself to believe a bit of subterfuge from a fraud?”, Ghost Stories seems to be asking.
Goodman goes home and receives a mysterious package in the mail. His career hero Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) has reached out to ask Goodman to help debunk three cases that Cameron was never able to disprove. “I need you to tell me I’m wrong,” Cameron begs when Goodman goes to see him. He needs to believe for his own sanity that these three horrific tales are scams.
The meat of the film is made up of an examination of these three cases. Nyman visits, in turn, a night watchmen named Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), who once discovered something terrifying during his graveyard shift; a kid named Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), who ran into a monstrous apparition while driving at night; and posh businessman Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), whose once-impending fatherhood took a dark turn. Each case study spins into its own small movie, flashing back to the frightening events as they occurred with no small amount of intensity and panache.
It all looks so great, boasting darkly elegant cinematography from Ole Bratt Birkeland, and Dyson and Nyman are masterful at weaving an atmosphere of dread, escalating the tension to almost unbearable levels with the help of a thrilling score by Haim Frank Ilfman. Ghost Stories is legitimately scary, but it’s also fun and operatic, and Freeman, in particular, is having a blast, luxuriating in this strange, surprising role he’s been given. But really, everyone seems like they’re having the time of their lives in this movie. No half measures are taken in any particular of Ghost Stories, and certainly not in any performance.
Ghost Stories works on the surface as just a series of scary stories told effectively, but the narrative structure surrounding those stories is far more interesting and revealing than your typical framing device. Ultimately, Ghost Stories examines what’s behind our fear, the ways that our history and emotional makeup condition us to be afraid – and what’s behind our cynicism, our fierce determination to believe that the world is black and white and mundane. There are some serious jump-scares in here, but none of them feel cheap, despite the fact that “cheapness” is sort of the defining characteristic of a jump-scare. Instead, Ghost Stories is playing with our expectations and instincts, revealing a little more of what’s behind its clever curtain with every fright.
It’s hard to get into the deeper stuff beneath Ghost Stories without wandering into spoiler territory, and this is absolutely a movie that doesn’t deserve to be spoiled. It’s fresh and wicked and extremely fun, and you should give yourself the chance to be surprised by it.