Are ghosts real?
That question seems to be the central premise of the new movie GHOST STORIES as it starts. Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, and available in the US on VOD, it tees up its premise with a character named Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman, yet again) who does not believe in goblins and such. He’s made a career out of debunking the supernatural, and as the story begins, he discredits a psychic who is right in the middle of a theatrical show. Goodman tells us, in the opening narration, that the mind merely plays tricks on itself and that there is no logical proof to support a netherworld.
Pay close attention to those early words, however, along with the first images that appear onscreen during the credits too. They hold many of the actual answers to the query about ghosts the film raises. In fact, it’s best to keep your eyes peeled quite close during the entire run of this 98-minute frightener. There are various clues to what’s going on in every scene. “What haunts man?” Indeed, it may not be just ghosts or things that go bump in the night. It could be a yellow dress, a hooded jacket, or even a dripping faucet.
After boasting of debunking that theatrical charlatan, the British Goodman receives a summons to a dilapidated old trailer park outside London to meet with his hero, the long-lost ghostbuster Charles Cameron. Goodman is disappointed that Cameron is living in such an impoverished place, and the old coot’s hostile attitude almost sends him packing. But then Cameron informs him that ghosts do exist, usurping his life’s work and that he’s got three cases that will prove it to Goodman. He tosses the files to the startled Goodman and challenges him to prove that he’s wrong.
Goodman cannot believe that his idol now is a true believer, so he sets out to investigate the cases as the film’s structure takes on an anthological structure. The first case concerns Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman who testifies that he’s seen all ghosts of supernatural chicanery at the derelict former asylum where he works. As he tells the professor his story in an empty bar, flashbacks show Matthews’ run-ins with an exceedingly mischievous specter, possibly that of a young girl, run amuck at the old asylum. If you’ve ever seen any of the Blumhouse horror films of recent, you know that there are plenty of jump-scares to be had in such a dark place with too many corridors and doorways.
Next, Goodman calls upon Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a high-strung teen who claims to have run over a demonic goat creature while driving his father’s car through the woods without a license. Again, flashbacks show us what Rifkind tells, and indeed, it appears he ran over something. When the beast finally plants itself in the back seat of Simon’s car, we too want to bail, but it’s mostly due to Dyson and Nyman doing such an expert job and creating an atmosphere in the foggy night air of the menacing forest.
The last of the three concerns a wealthy businessman Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, playing so smug, he’d give Sherlock a run for his money here). The one-percenter is hastily preparing for a hunt out on the moor, and Goodman struggles to keep up with the intense go-getter as he locks and loads his hunting rifle. In between snide comments about having children, Priddle tells of his horrific run run-ins with a ghost at his posh home on the cliffs. If you don’t think that flying diapers or stacked toys can be terrifying, wait till you see the scene where Priddle wades into the nursery awaiting the return of his wife and newborn from the hospital. The hairs on your arm will be standing on end just like those building blocks.
These three set-pieces are all exquisitely shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, edited precisely by Billy Sneddon, and scored with elegiac strings and brass by Haim Frank Ilfman. And they are undoubtedly eerie and disturbing. Arguably, the three men at the center of them all seem to be haunted by something long before the ghosts show up. Matthews is an embittered drunk, Rifkind is a jumble of tics, and Priddle bullies to protect his insecurities. Goodman doesn’t find any proof to disprove their stories, and throughout his encounters with the three witnesses, he has trouble even standing up for his beliefs. So, what’s honestly going on here?
The film would be a success if the storytelling stopped here. It’s eerie throughout, impeccably produced, and acted with great aplomb, especially by Freeman. But what happens after the three stories spool out is what will genuinely rattle your cage and have you talking about all you’ve seen for days. Again, it returns to the themes of haunting, yet the ghosts may not all be the metaphysical kind.
GHOST STORIES may not be the instant classic that A QUIET PLACE is, and the little pieces of story and structure it leaves dangling would likely give Robert McKee a heart attack. But damn, if this film isn’t terrific at conjuring up honest scares and at giving each of us a lot to think about as we watch the end credits roll. The film ultimately argues that the real world is scary enough already without having to create monsters. Go and see for yourself, and watch out for that yellow dress.