Released Apr. 20, 2018
Unrated (equal to R rating for violence, imagery, thematic elements, & language) – 1hr 38min
Directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman
Starring Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther
Prof. Philip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career of debunking claims of the supernatural and even hosts a TV show on the subject. He’s contacted by another academic, Dr. Charles Cameron – a fellow skeptic who happens to be his personal hero – who hasn’t much time left to live. The dying man challenges Goodman to debunk three cases that have shaken him to his core, leaving him to question his life’s work. What Goodman discovers may destroy him completely.
Ghost Stories begins in the style of a mockumentary, but curiously abandons that premise early on, never to revisit it. It then becomes something of an anthology, as the eyewitness accounts of each of Goodman’s subsequent investigations are presented as their own chapters. It then melts into a full-blown reality bender.
Ghost Stories is based on a critically acclaimed stage play. I’m going to return to that point, but first, I want to discuss video games, which is a normal impulse for me when someone brings up ‘the theater’. Many of the most popular gaming franchises – Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted, Resident Evil, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, etc. – have achieved their success largely by translating the thrills and excitement of cinema into an interactive adventure. However, they tend to borrow heavily from the world of movies in regards to crafting their narratives. This becomes extremely obvious when these game properties are adapted into the static, non-interactive world of films. They’re often regarded as dull and derivative – the action fails to have the intensity enjoyed in the games and the lack of originality in the storytelling then shines through. Now, Ghost Stories, as a stage play, was heralded for being able to cleverly translate horror movie tropes into a chilling theatrical experience. So, it is my opinion that it suffered the same dynamic as the video game adaptations on its way to the screen.
The movie does have a lot going its way. The acting is top-notch, particularly that of the three characters at the center of each investigation (and especially that of Alex Lawther as a chronically nervous and irresponsible wreck of a young man). Co-writer/director Nyman does a fine job in the lead role too, but his job is mostly to react and push things forward. Likewise, the pacing isn’t the issue here either, with the film chugging along at a satisfactory clip. The award-nominated musical score, composed by Haim Frank Ilfman, is also notable (so much so that there are a couple quiet contemplative moments in Ghost Stories that are frankly overwhelmed by the audacious swelling of orchestral strings). The atmosphere is generally on point – both creepy and cryptic, begging the question of how the whole thing is going to come together in the end.
Yet, it all still manages to go wrong. The build-ups to the big scares are enjoyable, but the payoffs consistently fall flat. Many of the big horror moments in Ghost Stories seem generously borrowed from other films – Lights Out, the Evil Dead series, Mama, and The Conjuring, to name a few. Aside from a couple instances of haunting imagery, it didn’t stick a single landing on any of its attempts. The greatest fizzle is in the final reveal itself which, in its eagerness to blow minds, scuttles everything that came before it. It’s so bold that it can only be interpreted as brilliance or garbage, and I fell into the latter group. I can’t say that it came from nowhere though, because the foreshadowing throughout is so upfront that there’s just no denying that a twist ending lies in wait.
So, my presumption is that Ghost Stories worked great when performed on the stage. It would be pretty amazing to see the modern horror movie translated into something that plays out tangibly right in front of the audience. However, in adapting that experience back to the screen, those visceral thrills are lost – just like with the video games that have been turned into movies. What was fresh and exciting in one format transforms into a slog when it’s forced to expose its core elements as used hand-me-downs.
With everything it gets right, it seems wrong to be so harsh on this film, but when it goes wrong, it’s consistently at the most crucial moments. That made for an unenjoyable time. I could possibly recommend it to someone who typically enjoys big twist endings no matter what, but that’s an excessively specific group. Otherwise, it was a disappointing waste of high-quality components and great potential.