Ghost Stories (2017)
Written & Directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman
Professor Phillip Goodman has made a career out of being a skeptic of all things supernatural and mystic. When we catch up with him, he’s exposing a medium that preys on grieving parents. Out of nowhere, Goodman is contacted by presumed dead paranormal investigator Charles Cameron, an inspiration to Goodman. Cameron claims that he had a crisis of faith and discovered three cases that he could find no rational explanation for. Goodman takes these three cases with the intent of doing his investigation and proving them hoaxes. However, as the good professor explores each incident and speaks to the people who witnessed each one he finds strange coincidences that hint at something more sinister behind these events.
I watched Ghost Stories almost immediately after finishing Robert Aickman’s short story collection Dark Entries. Aickman is a British writer whose horror stories are about the slowest burn and the subtlest touch you could get. There’s no gratuitous gore, and the specters that haunt his protagonists say more about those character’s psyche than of any more substantial aspect of evil. This type of classic storytelling is infused in the fabric of Dyson & Nyman’s Ghost Stories.
Ghost Stories began as a stage play in London’s West End and became well known for being only 80 minutes long with no intermission, no production photos, no audience members under 15 years of age, and a note imploring audiences to not talk to people about the contents of the play who had not seen it. The story recalls the work of Hammer Horror films but even more so the Amicus tableaus, horror anthology films produced in England throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. American audiences would most likely know them as the studio behind the film version of Tales From the Crypt. Their formula for anthologies was a series of stories with a framing device that became its own story in the third act.
Jeremy Dyson comes from the League of Gentlemen series, being the one-off camera member who focused on writing and direction. I always felt like the tone of horror built up in the League as well as its creators’ shows Psychoville and Inside No. 9 would work perfectly in a horror film. Co-writer/director Andy Nyman has experience working alongside noted mentalist Derren Brown who follows in the same hoax exposing tradition as Houdini. However, Ghost Stories is not merely a series of spooky tales; it is very much a personal story about Phillip Goodman.
The opening credits of the film are home videos of Goodman’s bar mitzvah and silently detailing his friendship with his older sister. We see that she’s in a relationship with a Muslim young man which leads to a falling out between her and the Goodman patriarch. These moments are never explicitly referenced again in the movie, but they set up some thematic ideas of guilt that will be explored. In fact, Goodman’s distancing from his Judaism ties directly into his desire to unmask those who use spirituality to exploit people who know no better.
Each horror short story is very compelling and straightforward. My personal favorite is the middle piece about a young man driving home after a party who appears hit the Devil with his car. Actor Alex Lawther (Black Mirror’s Shut Up and Dance) has mastered the art of playing characters who have reached the edge of their sanity. The moment after he realizes what he hit with his car and then frantically drives away is chilling. The camera watches him through the windshield and from above, allowing us to see his complete breakdown into a mixture of crying and laughing.
Ghost Stories is not a picture that builds itself on empty jump scares and when he does reach out to frighten the audience it serves a genuine purpose to the story. I will predict many audience members who will feel that the third act is a failure of horror, but in my evaluation of the genre, I believe if horror doesn’t become personal then it will not succeed in lingering with the audience in the manner it should.