Amusingly Unsettling Stories an Emotionally Ghoulish Triptych
Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) has spent his life debunking stories of the paranormal, most of the time doing it in public in order to dispel any doubts something even moderately supernatural has taken place. Things change, however, when he’s challenged to examine three separate, seemingly unconnected cases, each one a mystery rooted in just the sort of unexplainable phenomena that’s the professor’s investigatory bread and butter.
A night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) in an abandoned asylum discovers some of the former residents might be spending their afterlife wandering the decrepit halls. A jumpy teenager (Alex Lawther) borrows the family car, even though he failed his driver’s test, and literally runs into a two-legged goat-like creature eager to have a one-on-one conversation. A self-serving former banker (Martin Freeman) recounts how he was visited by a demonic entity on the same night his wife was supposed to give birth. These are events Professor Goodman is tasked with looking at, each tale supposedly having nothing to do with any of the others. While none are as crazy or as unbelievable as other mysteries he has previously debunked, there is something strange going on and it’s got him spooked, the truth far more personal than the educator ever could have imagined it would be before he agreed to take on this case.
Based on their own acclaimed stage play, screenwriters and directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman have managed to craft a gripping horror-suspense anthology that doesn’t forget to add an absorbing framing device that puts all three of the individual stories into shattering context. While it’s not a shock that there is some sort of twist that will thematically tie everything together, the power of what Dyson and Nyman end up exploring is still substantial. The final moments of this film are breathless in their overarching melancholic despair, the emotional tragedy of life’s bad decisions, missed opportunities and somber regrets taking a devastating toll.
Each story is effective in and of itself, in large parts thanks to some wonderful character work from Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman. Lawther is particularly outstanding, his jumpily terrified insecurity as he recounts what happened to him out on that lonely stretch of forested highway close to perfect. It’s also the most playful of tales Professor Goodman investigates, and it’s clear Dyson and Nyman have a solid grasp that the success of any horror anthology hinges on its ability to craft stylistically distinct individual segments that still feel organically part of a greater whole.
As such, arguably the two biggest stars to emerge out of all this end up being composer Haim Frank Ilfman (68 Kill) and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (Mister Johns). Ilfman’s score is wonderful, utilizing a variety of themes that as different as they might initially sound still manage to create a form of sonic cohesion that melodiously links the framing story with the three individual tales sitting inside of it. The same could also be said of Birkeland’s visuals. There is a well-defined look to each segment that sets them apart as their own individualized story. But there is still consistency in regards to the lighting and to the framing that allows things to come full circle in a way that helps augment the impact of the climactic reveal, the final images disquieting in their introspective finality.
Nyman is just fine as Professor Goodman, especially during the sections of the story where he gets to appear to be the smartest person in the room, the learned paranormal investigator not above taking great pride in that very thing. Freeman is also having all kinds of fun, and the way he tackles his more complicated than it initially appears character with such jovial relish is priceless. For what was obviously an especially low budget endeavor, there’s also some magnificent practical makeup and effects work that’s suitably bloodcurdling, that aforementioned man-goat-creature-thing only one of a number of imaginative highlights sprinkled throughout the feature.
I wasn’t shocked by the climactic twist, mainly because I knew there A) had to be one and B) there really weren’t too many different ways Dyson and Nyman could have ended things. But it’s still an effective turn of events, reminding me in some ways of 1972’s Tales from the Crypt and its 1973 follow-up Vault of Horror, and as I already stated that final image is breathlessly haunting. Ghost Stories isn’t necessarily the horror anthology one thinks it is going to be entering the theatre. That’s great, because what Dyson and Nyman have crafted is so much more personal and emotionally invigorating than anticipated, all of which makes their debut a beguilingly uncomforting jaunt into self-reflective madness I simply could not resist.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)