The anthology film Ghost Stories — released this past weekend to a few select theaters — is a cleverly creepily, and particularly British bit of horror and fun. Writing/directing team Jeremy Dyson, and Andy Nyman adapted their stage play into a deliberately paced tale that makes use of its claustrophobic staging, while managing to take advantage of the medium’s use of shot composition and editing.
Framed around the tale of a skeptic and professional debunker of ghost sightings, Nyman stars as Phillip Goodman, who is left a package by his longtime mentor, who, on his deathbed, asks him to investigate three case-studies that remain hard to debunk. Prof. Goodman, following each of the three leads, then bears witness to increasing tales of otherworldly encounters.
The first vignette involves a night watchman, charged with overlooking an abandoned sanitarium. A series of increasingly bizarre sounds and blackouts lead to his wandering into the holding cells, and encountering…something. Of the three, this vignette is the most straightforward: creepy setting. Creepy sounds. Creepy lighting. Shocking ending. However, this isn’t to knock the execution: horror films work best when the conventions don’t get too complicated. This most straightforward story goes a long way to proving the old adage: don’t reinvent the wheel.
The middle segment, wherein Goodman interviews Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a teenager who, returning from a late night out partying, runs into some creature in the middle of the woods, is the lightest, shortest, and funniest. While the brief peek into Rifkind’s family life and home was disturbing enough, it offered little moments of levity; when asked why his entire room is plastered with various pictures of demons and devils, Simon responds with “When I need cheering up, I look there,” and we cut to a crayon-colored child’s drawing of rabbits. And even the creepy encounter with the barely seen creature ends with a joke, hearing a low, beastly voice say, “…stay…” and pull him back while trapped in a stalled car, Simon begins to freak out, “FUCK THAT!” Lawther was fun in the role, balancing the humor with the very real sense that Simon has seen. Some. Shit.
And finally, the last sequence stars Martin Freeman as a professional banker (stockbroker?) preparing for the arrival of his first child, and realizing that his modern, renovated home is very, very haunted. Cutting between flashbacks of the haunting, and an hiking-based interview with Goodman, Martin is his usual fantastic self; there is a levity to every line, even when he turns morose and despondent, and he has the ability to convey deep emotion with just the slightest twitch of an eyelid. It makes his character’s appearance here that much more disturbing.
Billed as an anthology, the connecting here is Goodman himself…and the connective unfolds as a real trip. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the final fifteen or so minutes are so tonally bizarre, so trippy, so delightfully British that I was impressed that Dyson and Nyman (on this, their first feature film) managed to pull it off so well. While I wasn’t necessarily scared by the film, the tone and feeling of dread were wonderful. From the sound design to the color timing, Ghost Stories threatened to be a typical first-time-horror-film experiment. And while the ending fell slightly flat (as a former college filmmaker, it goes for the sort of ending most first-time filmmakers almost ALWAYS aim for), the journey to get to that point was fun; it also doesn’t hurt that Brooklyn’s excellent Nitehawk Cinemas billed this as a midnight…and has damn good grub and booze as well!
Not particularly gory, not too long, and not too contrived, Ghost Stories is going to be a fun addition to our Halloween marathoning this year. If you enjoy a British twist to your horror conventions, this is the film to track down–at least until October. 3.75/5 Bibles.