The opening scene of Ghost Stories, a new horror anthology film, sets us up to expect some kind of personal journey from its lead character, Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman, who co-wrote and co-directed). We’re shown painfully intimate home movies from his adolescence, which was made turbulent by his father’s rage. “It was my father’s religious beliefs that destroyed our family.” Ghost Stories doesn’t follow that path, but instead picks up with Goodman hosting a documentary series in which he exposes fake psychics and mystics as charlatans. The personal aspects are pushed far to the background, but it almost doesn’t matter, as the segments Nyman and collaborator Jeremy Dyson have created are genuinely chilling. At least, until everything comes crashing down in the film’s finale.
Initially, Ghost Stories sticks to the fake documentary style — shaky, hand-held cameras, with plenty of asides from Goodman. An early scene where he interrupts a craven psychic’s abuse of a grieving woman is stirring, all the more so because we wish others who exploit grief could get the same comeuppance. Goodman reveals that his quest to out charlatans was inspired by a famous psychologist who debunked a woman’s possession on television. Goodman tracks down the man, who was thought to have disappeared years ago but is now living in a shabby trailer. In a sloppily written scene that starts to depart from the quasi-documentary feel, he gives Goodman three files from cases he has never been able to conclusively debunk.
From there, the anthology format of the film takes shape, as Goodman interviews the surviving parties of the three cases. The first — and most chilling — takes place in an abandoned asylum, where a night watchman (The Death of Stalin’s Paul Whitehouse) comes face to face with some unexpected intruders. It’s the most traditional horror story of the three, and the most successful. It’s hard to go wrong with a dark, abandoned asylum, and Nyman and Dyson wisely milk the setting for all the scares they can. The segment elegantly builds the tension as the night watchman begins to suspect that someone is in the asylum with him, even if the latter part of the sequence is too indebted to jump scares.
One of the greatest strengths of Ghost Stories is its willingness to slow down between the segments, rather than trying to keep up the pace or continuously inventing new scares.
The second segment features The End of the F***ing World’s Alex Lawther as a teenager whose life has been turned upside down by a demonic run-in deep in the woods. Lawther’s character is prone to wide-eyed histrionics when Goodman first interviews him, but he has the same bug-eyed anxiety in the flashback scenes. The odd choice isn’t quite explained, which flattens his arc. Why should we care if a supernatural event has driven him mad, if he was already bonkers to begin with?
The third segment is a return to form. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, recent Marvel films) plays a wealthy (and boorish) business executive. He’s waiting in his stylish, yet chilling modernist home while his wife is preparing to give birth to their child. His worries over her health are interrupted by flying objects and visitations that seem to be the result of a poltergeist. Freeman has the most dramatic material to work with of the three segments, and he gives a compelling performance that feels much more fleshed-out than one might expect from an anthology film.
The framing device that Nyman uses, that of an academic exposing fake magicians and psychics, isn’t far from his real life persona. Nyman has collaborated with illusionist Derren Brown on shows that expose the tricks of illusions, and he perfectly mimics the kind of reality TV delivery one would expect from his character. He and Dyson, along with cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, craft some gorgeous shots of otherwise bleak seaside communities, showing some creativity in constructing their frames that would otherwise be forgotten amidst the rushed pace of most horror films. One of the greatest strengths of Ghost Stories is its willingness to slow down between the segments, rather than trying to keep up the pace or continuously inventing new scares.
The omnibus film has never quite found its way into filmgoers’ hearts. These sorts of movies, with their multiple segments, are too much like TV to have the gravitas that some audiences desire. It doesn’t help that they have such a terrible track record — the last great horror anthology film may have been Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), although Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) gives it a run for its money. It’s a pleasure to watch Ghost Stories and see how well executed the segments are, and how they actually seem to fit together — at least until the ending.
The specifics shouldn’t be revealed, but the film’s ending includes a series of revelations about Goodman that cast a pall over the preceding segments. The move comes out of nowhere; there are some minor hints that appear throughout the film, but they’re inconsequential and don’t really set up the results. It might have been possible to do the work to make the finale’s emotional catharsis seem earned, but Ghost Stories hasn’t planned that far ahead. It’s a slapdash ending that threatens to destroy everything that came before it.
Endings are notoriously hard things to work out — after all, some of the greatest films of all time have endings that don’t rise to their greatness. Maybe the best way to appreciate Ghost Stories is to try to forget how it ends.