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 that 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. The real question posed by the film is “What haunts man?” Indeed, it is not 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, 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. The old man tells Goodman that's he got three cases that prove it and challenges Goodman to prove him wrong.
Goodman cannot believe that his idol now is a true believer, so he sets out to investigate the cases. Here, the film takes on an anthological structure. The first case concerns Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman who testifies that he’s seen ghosts perpetrating all sorts of 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 the exceedingly mischievous specters. One seems to take the form of a young girl in a yellow dress as she runs 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 dark places with all those 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. Again, flashbacks show us the story, and indeed, it appears the young man did run over something. The victim remains alive however and ends up planting itself in Simon's backseat. Dyson and Nyman do an exceedingly expert job of creating a real nail-biter out there in the woods and it’s probably the most exciting scene in the film.
The last of the three cases concerns a wealthy businessman named 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 as Goodman struggles to keep up with the intense go-getter. In between snide comments about having children, and loading his rifle, Priddle tells of his horrific run-ins with a ghost at his elegant cliffside home. 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. Arguably, the men at the center of the trio of stories seem to be haunted by something long before their 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 tales, and he seems discombobulated throughout all of them, so what's going on here?
The film would be a success if the storytelling stopped there. 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 not all the ghosts are of the metaphysical persuasion.
GHOST STORIES may not be the instant classic that A QUIET PLACE is, and the little pieces of story and structure left dangling would give Robert McKee a heart attack. But damn if this film isn’t gangbusters at conjuring up genuine, honest scares, and at giving each of us a lot to think about while the end credits roll. The film ultimately argues that the real world is scary enough already without having to create monsters to add to it. Go and see for yourself, and oh yes, watch out for that yellow dress.