Ghost Stories, written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, pulls you in with a familiar set of tales and then slowly weaves a narrative that will frighten you, amuse you and have you questioning everything that you’ve just watched. What I thought would be a simple little British horror film became something that left me wide-eyed and excited to write this review. I’ll have to dodge and weave through this one though, as I don’t want to step on any spoiler filled land mines. Let’s get to the review, shall we.
Professor Phillip Goodman – played by Andy Nyman – hosts a television show that disproves paranormal sightings and psychic abilities as nothing more than hoaxes and lies. But when the man who inspired him to go down this career path contacts him and offers him three cases that could change his outlook of the paranormal forever; he reluctantly pursues them. What he doesn’t know is that the path he has chosen to go down will be one full of terrors and inexplicable activity.
When I first saw the trailer for this film I thought I knew what it was. A simple, intriguing little British horror film with some scares and some cookie characters. Those aspects were very much in the film and because of that I began to settle into an experience that felt familiar but still enjoyable. But I should have realised sooner than I did that I was being lured in and toyed with.
I want to jump back to when I was a wee lad and would watch TV shows that were all about examining and exploring paranormal events. There was something about that time when those types of shows seemed more prevalent than they’ve been (in the U.K.). There was always a particular style to them and it became a type of show that I was familiar with – a show that when I was very young would watch through my hands, and as I grew up I would laugh at for how quaint they actually were. Ghost Stories captures the aesthetic and the structure of those shows greatly, and because of that was a film that felt very familiar to me – in the beginning.
Ghost Stories was a film that I felt I fully knew what I was going to get, but despite that I was still really enjoying the path I thought it was leading me down. In fact, it allowed me to feel cocky in my predictive state of mind. I was calling the scares before they happened – though I still wasn’t immune to those scares. I was predicting how a particular moment would play out. It was less a horror film for me in the beginning – though it still had me perspiring, as I waited for the jump scares to come (something I’ll touch upon in a moment) – but for the most part I was enjoying how well put together the whole experience felt.
Along with Professor Goodman, you traverse three stories that in the context of horror are all things we’ve read or seen before. An old insane asylum with a tortured spirit. A foggy, dark forest with a monster lurking. And a pleasant house that is soon overtaken by a poltergeist. All stories that we’ve experienced before in a number of different ways. However, what makes them good and not feel like rehashes of things we’ve seen before are a couple of things. The first one being the people telling the stores of their life-changing night full of terror. Each story is told to us by an interesting individual; each being vastly different from the last. In their own ways they pull you in and like any good telling of a spooky story you connect to them and root for them. Think if it like you sitting around with your friends telling… well… ghost stories. Simon Rifkind – played by Alex Lawther – was a personal favourite. Both as a character and an actor. Simon is extremely off-balance and brings a real creep factor to his telling of the story, while Alex Lawther steals the show with his performance.
What also keeps the individual stories feeling fresh is that with them being told by different people, it means that the structure and presentation of each story differs significantly. The more straight talking, beer swilling, Tony Matthews – played by Paul Whitehouse – tells his story in slow, tension filled detail – making his story in particular the scariest. Meanwhile Simon’s recounting of his paranormal incident has a lighter tone to it and even with the scares, was able to get a few chuckles from me (and the audience around me) which were welcome rest-bites from the fear. It sounds like it can get a little messy – tonally – but it surprisingly didn’t. It makes sense in the context of the film; three different stores told be three very different people. For them to match in tone and presentation would actually be weirder.
But with this being a horror film that does mean I have to talk about the dreaded jump scares. I dread them both for succeeding in getting me to jump and for how lazily they are often used. Ghost Stories certainly has jump scares. It also more than certainly has some cheap jump scares. The kind where it drags out the silence, tortures you with tension and then reveals something completely insignificant while playing a sudden, sharp scream over it.
The way I usually come down on jump scares of the lazy, cheap kind is that if the film is good enough where the use of them can be forgiven or overlooked, then I usually subscribe to that. But if it’s something like ‘Paranormal Activity’ where they have no film; there’s no story or characters, just the illusion of being scary by having constant jump scares, then I come down hard on their use. In the case of Ghost Stories, I happily forgive its use of some pretty cheap jump scares because it weaves a film that more than made up for that one constant failing of the horror genre.
Beyond the film’s use of jump scares, it still does a good job of standing above a lot of the other horror films out right now and delivers some genuinely memorable and effective scares. It’s a film that likes to toy with you. It allows moments that are particularly full of dread to linger. It stretches moments out and has you looking around for whatever might be lurking just out of frame. And it packs it all into a neat, survivable 98-minutes.
Me being the messed-up person I am; I revel in those moments of sustained tension or dread. I know what the filmmaker is doing; I know they will inevitably succeed in scaring me, and for some reason I love it. A little smile sometimes creeps across my face and that usually only happens when I’m really enjoying a horror film. You see, I love horror films – when they are done right. I’ve loved them since I was young – perhaps too young to be watching some of the films I did – and so when I get to watch horror being done right, it both scares me and delights me. Especially in more recent times, it’s more common to get a lazy, uninspired horror film, rather than a memorable one. Films like, The Witch or It Comes at Night are a dime-a-dozen compared to a lot of the schlock that dominates the big screen these days.
And what had me smiling and loving Ghost Stories: was that it went from a familiar feeling horror experience that was really enjoyable, to an experience that soon saw me falling down a rabbit hole full of unexpected twists and turns. Throughout the film there are little clues being fed to you. You don’t realise at first (or at least I didn’t), but when you do, you’ll find yourself playing along; walking down the twisted path in which you’re not sure where it might end up, but you very much want to find out. I will admit I wasn’t that enamoured with the final reveal as it wasn’t that satisfying or even necessarily clever. But for me it didn’t sully the experience.
It became a film where I began scanning each frame; listening even more intently to the things that were being said to Professor Goodman, all in hopes of sussing out where things were going and what played a part in the larger story. It’s exactly what I love: an engaging film that goes beyond being a plain, by-the-books experience. Ghost Stories had transformed from a film that I thought I understood and was prepared to enjoy passively, to a film that caught me completely off-guard and had me consumed by its story.
In my head I was attempting to put the pieces together. I looked back over all the little elements it had taken the time to focus on and I began reconstructing it all in my head. And I continued to do this after the film had finished and I was walking back to my car. I can easily see this being a film that would warrant a second watch, let alone a first one. Going back and getting to see all the little elements that were missed the first time but now are so clear to see, would certainly make for a watch that would feel even richer than the first-time round.
Ghost Stories was a film that I was consumed by when watching it, and then it was a film I was still consumed by after it had finished. For so many reasons this film stayed (and continues to stay) in my mind. I think back to all the little moments that were so effective in their execution and I think about how it made me feel throughout. I know for some this film might not be one that they think about for too long, but for me this was a fantastic little British film.
And so, I of course recommend, Ghost Stories. If you struggle with horror films, I implore you to not let that stop you from seeing this one. There are certainly scenes that will have you wanting to hide, but if you stick through it, you’ll come out the other side having watched something wonderful in its terror filled experience. So please take the time to support and enjoy this little film made by a crew and with a cast of fantastic British talent.
I’d love to know what you thought of Ghost Stories and my review of it. So please, leave any opinions or feedback you may have, in the comments section down below. Also, it would be great if you were to consider following both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But enough of me asking things of you. I’m going to bring things to a close by thanking you for stopping by, reading my review and helping to grow whatever it is I’m doing on this little blog. Thank you!