Ghost Stories

I love a good ghost story. Even though I don't believe in ghosts or the supernatural, an expertly created ghost story can get me and keep me on the edge of my seat.  And when that story can take me on a ride, or do something unexpected, I get giddy. The problem with ghost stories is that they tend to stick to well-tread staples. The mystery, the investigation, the jump scares, the skeptics, the realization. But once in awhile, a movie comes around that either takes these ingredients and prepares such a perfect course that you don't care or notice the tropes, or completely subverts expectations. Ghost Stories, written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, does both.

Ostensibly an anthology film, Ghost Stories centers its tale around a Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), a Jewish professor and television presenter who spends his time debunking the supernatural. We learn immediately that his father was a very superstitious individual who prided religion above all else, making his family life miserable. And it's intuited that this upbringing makes Goodman want to bring truth to the rest of the world so they don't make the same mistakes. He receives a package from an old paranormal investigator that Goodman admired, named Charles Cameron. The surprise is that Cameron has been missing for decades.

Goodman decides to meet with Cameron, who tells him of three cases that made him a believer. Cameron hopes that Goodman will either dispel them as being as fake or that they will make him a believer, as well. And with that, we delve into the three stories that take up the bulk of the narration. But unlike a lot of anthology films, they weave in and out of Goodman's story, which serves not as a typical wraparound, as in movies like V/H/S, but as one connected piece.

Ghost Stories is based on a stage play, with Nyman reprising his role. What's interesting is that, if I hadn't known that it was a play originally, I probably would never have guessed it. It makes me curious how the play unfolds and how accurate of an adaptation this is. What did surprise me is how slyly funny it was in spots. The second tale of terror, starring Alex Lawther (The End of the Fucking World, Black Mirror) as Simon Rifkind had such a malicious funny streak in it that I found myself laughing, even when on edge. Turns out, the co-writer/co-director Jeremy Dyson has written for Tracy Ullman's Show and he brings that wit and charm to the movie.

The line between comedy and horror is thin. Both rely on precise timing and staging of the joke/surprise. And I loved how old fashioned some of the set pieces were, relying on darkness and the mind to really shock you. In fact, two of the stories rely completely on what is not seen. The first tale, in particular, heightened the suspense by being completely dark, with only a lonely flashlight cutting the blackness. It was an expertly designed roller coaster. If anything, it was the last of the three tales that I found a little meek and disappointing, but then the way the story unfolded from there had me back under its spell.

What impressed me the most, though, was how it kept continually changing my expectations. As I'm sure a lot of horror fans can, I've seen so many horror movies that I can usually suss out the plot beats and the twists before they happen and I thought I had the story pinned down completely by the end of the first tale. But no. It kept surprising me, taking me down twisty roads that had me questioning what I was actually watching. I love it when a movie can still do that and genuinely surprise me.

We're a bit over the halfway mark of 2018 and we've been blessed by some truly diverse types of horror movies. I'm not sure where this one will ultimately end on my end-of-the-year list, but I have a feeling it will be pretty high. It's just a fun little gem of a movie; one that kind of flew under the radar. I'd definitely recommend giving it a chance.