There is a lot going in the anthology horror film Ghost Stories. At its simplest level, there are three vignettes where spirits haunt three different men in England. These ghost stories are frightening in a superficial way – there are oodles of jump scares – with about the level of atmosphere you should expect from the genre. Directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, who are adapting their stage play to the screen, explore the nature of storytelling and belief. It is an odd mix of genre-bending and predictable moments, and since no story lasts for too long, the cumulative effect is uneven. While this material must have been effective on stage, it pales in comparison to how the genre has advanced over the past few years.
The framing device for the three stories is Philip Goodwin (Nyman), a professor and professional skeptic who debunks the supernatural on a little-seen television series. He’s the literal-minded sort who thinks there is a scientific explanation for everything, and one day his childhood inspiration – a debunker named Cameron – presents him with a challenge: Goodwin must investigate three cold cases Cameron could not solve. The investigation takes the form of interviews where Goodwin asks disturbed, frightened men about the supernatural experiences in their pasts. The plurality of Ghost Stories is flashbacks where we watch the hauntings unfold.
All the flashbacks toy with the intersection of perception and reality. Paul Whitehouse plays the first interviewee, a laborer named Tony who sees a creepy young woman while working in an abandoned asylum. Goodwin’s line of questioning provokes hostility in his subjects. They are defensive, and quick to blurt out, “I know what I saw!” As directors, Nyman and Dyson rely too much on horror film grammar. The anticipation of the jump-scare – coupled with dark rooms and ominous music – is downright primitive. While the imagery is admittedly creepy, it arrives in a way that is well-telegraphed.
The interviewees of the next two stories are played by Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman, respectively. These two stories are more effective because Lawther and Freeman are more effective actors; they create just enough anticipation that the flashbacks begin with a heightened sense of alertness. You may recognize Lawther from Black Mirror or The End of the F***ing World, and here he brings the same nervy energy as Simon, an occult obsessed-loser who sees the Devil in the woods one night. His flashback is the least effective simply because the way it’s staged – with him wandering in and out of his car – is the most familiar horror trope.
Martin Freeman is the best thing about Ghost Stories. He is character is smart, mean-spirited, and prickly. You don’t quite know what to make of him, since he sympathetic in one moment, then needles Goodwin with anti-Semitic remarks in another. The arrival of his character is where Ghost Stories attempts to transcend its genre trappings: the film breaks the fourth wall, sometimes literally, and forces us to rethink everything we’ve thought about what just happened.
This kind of narrative risk must be shocking on stage: with the audience occupying the same space as the actors, there is some semblance of tactile reality that Nyman/Dyson playfully subvert. Plenty of films, on the other hand, have used the limitations of the moviemaking as a way to mess with their audiences. A risk in one medium is not necessarily risky in another, so this attempt at shock arrives with a whimper. Most plays would not make good films. Kudos to Nyman and Dyson for trying – and finding character actors to go along with it – but Ghost Stories is a bit like hearing a scary story from your mom before bed time. She won’t want to frighten you too much.