Director: Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson
Cast: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther
Plot: Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) makes his living out of finding rational explanations for supposed supernatural occurrences. He is challenged to make sense of three inexplicable paranormal cases.
Horror anthology films usually come with a bad reputation. They feel like a handful of short films that couldn’t be strung together into a feature, so they are crudely stitched together with other shorts to make one large whole. The issue is a finished feature that never finds its footing, usually hampered by too many directors in one area. While the intention is usually a celebration of different film-makers coming together to experiment with the variety of horror, it never comes across as a coherent article.
Ghost Stories however is one of the best anthology horrors, if not the best, I have seen. Kept grounded and British, each chapter of the story being directed by the same two directors, Nyman and Dyson’s power is keeping their film under constant control. It helps that the framing device cleverly makes the episodic nature of the film feel not only natural, but essential in telling the story. Nyman, also starring in this production, plays the cynical paranormal investigator who makes a living out of debunking psychics or explaining away supernatural sightings with rational explanations. Then one day, an idol of his, sends him three cases he could never solve and asks Goodman to figure out if ghosts do actually exist. Goodman hunts down each witness to these supernatural entities (Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman), and interviews them. With each interview, we are transported into the experience, lining up a terrifying assault of horror film-making at its finest. Paul Whitehouse plays a security guard at an abandoned female asylum, who starts hearing something moving in the dark corridors of the building. Alex Lawther plays a nervous teen whose car breaks down in the middle of a creepy forest. Martin Freeman plays a busy businessman who is spending the night alone waiting for his pregnant wife to deliver a baby. Each horror short is directed with creepy passion. Nyman and Dyson have a subtle talent to crafting fine fears. Sometimes it is the simple tricks that have been used a thousand times that works best. A torch going out at the wrong moment. A knock from somewhere in the distance. A shadowy figure appearing in the distance. However, Ghost Stories never feels like it is phoning in a scene or falling back on laziness. The first chapter of the story with Paul Whitehouse is some of the scariest horror I have seen in a long time. It is a fine display of notching up the tension, level by level, before unleashing a terrifying spectacle on the audience. Sadly, the one time the horror anthology tropes begin to bring Ghost Stories down with it, is that each new chapter makes the fears feel slightly lesser. Ghost Stories is a film that loses the steam the more it goes on, almost as though the trend of picking up with a new set of characters becomes too tiring to keep enticing the audience back in. Lawther is excellent at channelling that quivering victim, but his story lacks the grounded realism that made the asylum encounter so powerful. And Martin Freeman’s tale feels like it has run out of time to build properly. It is over before it has truly begun, although it does feature one ingenious scare from actress Emily Carding, as a screeching figure in the darkness.
But Ghost Stories has more up its sleeve that a set of short films. Once the three chapters have wrapped to a close, we focus in on Nyman’s investigator trying to explain away the spooky stories. This is where Dyson and Nyman begin their endgame, a harrowing experience that will either lose its viewers or blow their minds. It almost shook me loose, as it tests incredulity, before bringing its film back down into a clever form of reality. Keen eyed viewers might spot the hidden visual treats buried in each chapter that begin to hint at the twist waiting for you at the end of the story. Even if Ghost Stories terrifies you to pieces, the final few moments will likely have you desperately rewatching the film to see if you can spot things that you didn’t before. The genius of the script is that, after everything it puts its audiences through, it doesn’t actually explain if the supernatural occurrences are real or not. Are ghosts real? Perhaps the answer isn’t actually important with the writers more interested in the cracks in between the discussion. There is an intriguing segment on what positives the belief in the supernatural brings. Ghostly encounters inspire acts of kindness or move a victim to bring their life around. Perhaps the belief in ghosts in more important than the belief in itself. No matter the final opinion, such a breach of this hefty topic proves that Ghost Stories is one of the more intelligent British horrors about, and almost certainly the most intelligent anthology horror.
Final Verdict: Ghost Stories side-steps most of the issues present in anthology horrors and comes up with a smart, spooky horror that will delight genre fans.