A night-watch man is terrorised at an abandoned lunatic asylum, a teenager is traumatised by his encounter with the devil, and a father is haunted by his dead child. These are the three cases that famed fraud-debunker Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) has been tasked with investigating. His enquiry provides a service previously reserved for “horror hosts” as his story interjects between each segment, and we are delivered a film derived from a classic era of horror, full of nostalgia and accompanied by an effective suspense-driven marketing campaign.
Ghost Stories presents itself as a three-story anthology horror film, strung together with Goodman’s ongoing narrative. It harks back to the 1970s and 80s, when anthology horror movies was more popular than ever, and now the format is making a resurgence. With titles like Trick ‘r Treat, VHS, ABCs of Death and Nightmare Cinema leading the charge, we are at a moment where higher standards apply to the current saturation, and more scrutiny is placed upon new entries to the genre.
In and of themselves, each instalment here conjures a scary tale, bringing a reliable measure of horror to the screen. Cheeky jump-scares lift bums off seats and the foreboding suspense leaves imprints in the arm rests. Darkness, fog and slow tracking camera angles enhance the tension as the perpetual music score niggles susceptible movie goers and– at this point it would seem that I am setting this review up to be one of high praise. But there’s one catch; its impact is lost by the laborious framework detailing the investigation, whereby revelations feel contrived and unnecessary.
Co writer and director Andy Nyman also stars as Goodman, the TV show sceptic whose talents have been requested by a world-renowned skeptic thought to be dead. The film is based Nyman’s own stage show (co-created with Jeremy Dyson); conceptually, their material is a much more interesting prospect as a play. On screen they present a technically well-made film, but offer only a moderately successful adaptation in terms of story. Because of their elaborate interlacing subplot to the three featured chapters, they have lessoned the overall impact.
The performances are all very good, with Alex Lawther particularly excellent as the troubled teenager. Martin Freeman gives a suitably nuanced turn as the unusually chipper grieving father, whose place within the film is multilayered and illusive, and comedian Paul Whitehouse (The Fast Show) kicks off the comedic undertone that bleeds into the rest of the story, threatening to undermine the horror. Nevertheless, Whitehouse’s performance is great and he is the highlight of the film as far as I’m concerned.
Ghost Stories could have been one of the year’s best horror films, but with too many irritations and a palpable fray separating the segments from the framing narrative, it falls short of its promise and rests with an average verdict. If I were to critique the three chapters alone this would be a very favourable review, but as a whole I cannot bring myself to award it beyond a two out of five.