Ghost Stories (2017)
★ / ★★★★
British horror anthology “Ghost Stories,” written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, attempts to deliver a spooky time by minimizing special and visual effects and underlining aptly executed light and shadow, creepy interiors, a slow but calculated pacing, and performances that draw the viewers in. However, the material fizzles out way too soon; by the final twenty minutes, it has nothing to hold onto but a series of clichés often found in awful horror films. What results is an experience that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), debunker of the paranormal, is given a manila envelope that contains three enigmatic cases, unsolved by Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a former supernatural investigator that Goodman looked up to during his formative years. The opening segment is strong and so it builds anticipation for what is about to come. Key, I think, is Nyman’s portrayal of a man of evidence and science. Although an academic, Goodman is not the scholastic and inaccessible type. Instead, he is played with a simplicity, an ordinariness—an important trait because people must open up to him to reveal their terrifying encounters.
The only worthwhile of the bunch is Tony Matthews’ story (Paul Whitehouse). The former night watchman in an abandoned correctional facility is driven to alcoholism by not only a mysterious encounter but also by life’s unfortunate turn of events. The flashback to Tony’s final night in the former psychiatric hospital is effectively executed, particularly in the rising action involving a ghost that wishes to play with him—which begins with the unplugging of cords that supply electricity to his office. Anybody who has worked in a building by himself can relate to the sudden chill of hearing a noise from a corner, or upstairs, or a room right next door… when nobody is supposed to be there to make a sound. In my case, I used to work in a modest museum and at times I would hear a noise, like creaking floorboards, from the supply storage upstairs. (“The building is old,” I told myself.)
Curious but never reaching its full potential is the story of Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a young man who comes from a household of controlling parents. The opening few minutes is bizarre and intriguing. It gives the impression that nothing is as it seems inside the house, from the eerie photographs to the manner in which the parents simply stand next to each other in the kitchen without sharing a word. Simon’s story does not involve the house but rather an encounter in the dark woods. This is when the picture begins to fall apart. Cosmetics and costumes are employed in a jarring way, never scary but occasionally silly. This serves as precedent for the final case—which had the potential to be a standout.
I am not surprised that Martin Freeman decided to play the role of Mike Priddle, case number three, a man, like the two subjects before him, whose life had been upended by an unexplained phenomenon. What separates Mike’s story from the other three, however, is the specificity of the possible haunting: the baby’s room. You see, the doctors advised that he go home while his pregnant wife stays in the hospital for further observation. As expected, Freeman’s performance is the strongest, delivering a wealth of emotions every time he speaks. So it is most unfortunate that his storyline is the shortest and far undercooked. While Tony and Simon’s stories are given time to build, Mike’s story is rushed in order to make room for Goodman’s story.
The film might have been stronger had we remained to know little about Goodman’s background—even though he is the eyes from which we look through during the course of the interviews. To me, Goodman’s childhood story is junk for the most part because it serves only to deliver an ineffective, unbelievable, and unearned twist ending. After all, the best horror stories retain a mystery about them. This one makes the crucial mistake of attempting to explain everything.