Release: 27th August 2018
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), professor of psychology, arch-skeptic, the one-man ‘belief buster’ – has his rationality tested to the hilt when he receives a letter apparently from beyond the grave. His mentor Charles Cameron, the ‘original’ TV parapsychologist went missing fifteen years before, presumed dead and yet now he writes to Goodman saying that the pair must meet. Cameron, it seems, is still very much alive. And he needs Goodman to find a rational explanation for three stories that have shaken Cameron to his core. As Goodman investigates, he meets three haunted people, each with a tale more frightening, uncanny and inexplicable than the last.
Anthology stories are a tough gig. On one side they offer a great opportunity to tell short, sharp and impactful stories with an overarching theme, but on the other side it is a format that clips the wings of the filmmaker; giving them limited time to build character and weave an engaging and rewarding narrative. It is little wonder that the anthology is something favoured in the horror genre; something synonymous with minimal plot and flat characters. Famously implemented by the likes of George Romero (Creepshow), Mario Bava (Blacksabbath) and Ghost Stories’ own Jeremy Dyson collaborators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (Inside No. 9), Ghost Stories may not have a monopoly on the format, but it clearly loves it, and wisely chooses to borrow from anthology alumni in other genres, such as Tarantino, to improve its odds of standing out.
Originally a stage show from the brains behind The League of Gentlemen and Derren Brown’s mind buggering witchcraft, Ghost Stories has its ingredients printed on the tin. In other words, it is dark, funny, scary and an ever revolving gif of a bespectacled man in a turtle neck mimicking explosion from his skull. It focuses on the experience of Professor Goodman, a paranormal debunker who makes a career out of exposing frauds. The initial set up is that Ghost Stories is a documentary of sorts, giving it a sense of the theatrical, but the film soon begins to follow a more conventional form as it launches in to its three creepy tales. Dyson is no stranger to turning stage shows in to films, and clearly uses the medium to its full potential. So much so, in fact, that having not seen the live show it is almost impossible to imagine how they substituted many of these sequences for the stage.
The film takes on three classic folk lorish tales as Paul Whitehouse experiences the conventional spooky house troupes, while Alex Lawther’s urban legend supersedes Martin Freeman’s poltergeist haunting. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, with Whitehouse’s potentially being the least impressive of the three. But this is only in comparison to the rest of the film. All are pretty disturbing, and in their own ways each are littered with brief moments of levity; Lawther, in particular, gets to ramp up his nervous geekiness to epic proportions.
Without wishing to spoil anything, one might say that the final 20 minutes are possibly the weakest. There is a heartfelt and rather tragic circumstance surrounding what happens, but the payoff feels too much like a Derren Brown special to really work in the context of the wider film. In short, the end feels like a cheat and leaves a bitter taste heading out, which is a shame because everything that came before was a riot. One other interesting hang up is the lack of female characters. All of these stories seem to circle around men and the relationships they share with guilt, which is an interesting subtext that was either intentional or pure chance. But either way, it adds some depth to what could potentially be three rather cosmetically unnerving tales.
Ghost Stories may not be the blinding classic that it intends to be, but in a world of Conjuringverses and ever cycling horror franchises, it would be a welcome and refreshing sight to see more volumes of this re-appear every few years, until Dyson and Nyman build themselves a Black Mirror like industry of creepy tales, nightmarish twists and pitch black laughs. Just so long as no one else has to endure a creepy rotting finger in their mouth.
Film Grade: B
A decent making of and a peppy EPK around Rorschachs and visual effects are eclipsed by the airy and informative banter of the director’s commentary. However, what would have been a really nice addition would have been a documentary of the film’s influences; which are clearly extensive.
Special Features Grade: C
You won’t poo your pants. In fact, you’ll barely wet your knickers. But you will be entertained and grateful for this unique collection of spooky campfire tales.