So, last week, I wrote a review of A Quiet Place, which is certainly the horror movie to beat of the year so far. But it’s not the only horror dropping this month that’s recieved effusive critical acclaim – no, it’s got a challenger, in the form of Ghost Stories, a British horror adapted from a play by Jeremy Dyson, who also directs the cinematic version alongside leading man Andy Nyman.
Now, I’m always suspicious of horror movies that get described as “the SCARIEST movie of the YEAR”, mainly because those superlatives always seem to be applied to horror films that hit their mark but do little more: Insidious springs to mind, as the perfect example of a horror film that’s not bad but doesn’t innovate or engage in any serious way. But that’s how I saw Ghost Stories getting consistently reviewed, and, for some reason, I’m a sucker for having the shite scared out of me, so I had to give it a shot.
And when it comes to scares? Yeah, this movie delivers. A sort of backdoor anthology horror, Ghost Stories follows the story of Professor Philip Goodman, a skeptic and general debunker of all things paranormal, as he is tasked by his long-time hero and inspiration to debunk three cases that his hero couldn’t find explanations for. It’s a solid set-up, and Nyman as Goodman delivers a strong character to build from: the film opens with him discussing his attraction to skepticism as a response to the aggressive religiosity pushed on him by his family, and the relief he finds in debunking the paranormal and undercutting much of the power it had over him and his family.
And then the film launches into the three short horror movies that make up each of the cases, and if I’m being honest, they’re pretty terrifying. I’ve written a lot before about horror movies, and specifically whether or not they have to be scary to be classed as “good” – and while I’m still undecided on the answer to that question, I do love being scared. Ghost Stories doesn’t necessarily push the boat out when it comes to these spooky stories, but the execution is good and the ties with mythology are fun for nerds like me who like feeling like they’re in on the gag. And yeah, there were totally a couple of moments were I very casually closed my eyes because I was so spooked, so it has that going for it. And that is no small thing. Truly scary horror is hard to make, in an era when we’ve seen all the tricks deconstructed a thousand times over, and Ghost Stories deserve credit for that.
But once those three central stories are done with, Ghost Stories has to deliver some kind of resolution to the framing device, and that’s where things start to fall apart. I’m a really big fan of anthology horror (mainly because it’s introduced me to a lot of directors I wouldn’t otherwise have come across – The Profane Exhibit gave me Nacho Vigalondo, The ABCs of Death Adam Wingard, and so on), and it’s always the wraparound stories that struggle the most in these kinds of films. V/H/S, for all it’s faults, generally focused on keeping those stories quick, simple, and directly tied in to the telling of it’s central short films – but the meat of the stories comes from those, and it understands that. Ghost Stories tries to yank together the three tales into something cohesive with a trippy ending and a final resolution that feels a hell of a lot like a complete, all-a-dream, cop-out and the kind of thing my high school English teacher would have told me off for falling back on. It’s simply not fair, in a story like this, to have the question “how can this be happening?” posed at the start of the film, only for the movie to handwave the weirdness away with “because none of it actually did”.
And, this is apropos of not much but still: there’s literally not one significant female character in this entire film, and honestly, in 2018, the fact that people still believe characters can go through large chunks of their entire lives without encountering women is just…weird.
Basically, Ghost Stories is an anthology horror film that relies way too much on it’s wraparound story to bring the pieces together, and ends up shooting itself in the foot with a deeply unsatisfying resolution at the end-up. I think the three short stories work, and I think there’s something intriguing in the character of Philip Goodman and his relationship to the paranormal, religion, and skepticism, but the film just can’t bring the two parts together in an interesting way. When the credits rolled, I felt as though I’d been had, despite the relative success of the three spooky shorter stories at the film’s heart.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header photo courtesy of Den of Geek)