Growing up, I didn’t know the difference between a “scary movie” and a “horror film.” I kinda still don’t, but Ghost Stories made me realize just how vast that difference is. Everyone knows “scary movies” – the kind where the mysterious killer stalks and slashes the good-looking teenagers, the funhouse-type frights make you and your popcorn jump six feet, and the music builds when disaster is near.
But to me, real horror – true, gut horror – is that sinking, sickening feeling that comes when you know nothing is ever going to get better for the characters you’re watching. There is no escape from where they’re stuck, and they’re doomed to live what’s left of their lives in absolute agony. No matter if they’re going to die in the next frame or if they’re going to live until the credits roll, the rest of their on-screen existence is screwed.
Where does writers/directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s filmed adaptation of their stageplay Ghost Stories fit into all of this? It’s a fiendishly well-put-together combination of both scares and horror you won’t find easy to forget. This is one of those films which draws you into its lair and playfully bats you around while baring its teeth and taking a bite.
And by “bats you around,” I mean “slams you into wall after wall of fear and isolation until you cry ‘Uncle,’” and then it’ll do it some more. The imagery with which Nyman and Dyson flood our senses is straight out of the stuff of my own nightmares. Abandoned basements, shadows running in the dark, the lights suddenly cutting in and out while revealing someone or something which shouldn’t be there, being stuck in a forest at night… yeah. I have a lot of nightmares.
At the center of these nightmare scenarios is psychic and paranormal debunker Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman), who we first encounter on a mission to expose a fraudulent psychic who plays on his audience’s sorrows. Stemming heavily from religious childhood trauma and inspired by fellow debunker Charles Cameron, Goodman’s that guy who runs up out of nowhere and ambushes you with a microphone in your face. But when the retired Cameron takes notice of what he’s doing and sends him to investigate three of his unsolved cases from the ‘70s, Goodman suddenly finds himself venturing into cavernous darkness and harrowing danger.
These three unsolved cases fly past due to Ghost Stories’ anthology format, ensnaring us quickly with each spooky occurrence but never sticking around fully to appreciate the ghastly circumstances surrounding each story’s principal. We’re dunked into each story like a kid running between rooms in a carnival haunted house, scared until we scream, and then we’re ushered onto the next scare. Each successive story builds on the previous story’s suspense and thrills, and each character Goodman meets only gets weirder and weirder until the thread which connects all of these stories announces itself.
Goodman’s investigations lead him to the alcoholic, depressed caretaker of a disused mental institution (Paul Whitehouse), a terrified boy obsessed with the Devil and the many shapes he takes (Alex Lawther), and a man recently made a widower under horrifying circumstances (Martin Freeman). Each of them details a brush with the impossible and simply fearful, the likes of which make even the most jaded horror viewer clutch their armrest or partner’s arm just a little bit tighter. We’re suffocated with dread, driven under our blankets by the direness of each character’s situation, only to have our jaws drop at what Goodman finds when his investigation’s done.
Billy Sneddon’s appropriately ruthless editing of Ole Bratt Birkeland’s moody, ominous photography only heightens the tension wrought by each of these three stories. We’re lulled into a false sense of calm in each location before Nyman and Dyson rip the Band-Aids off and run us through the wringer. It also helps that each performance, ranging from the placid and calm (Freeman) to the manic and disturbed (a dynamically standout Lawther), is directed to perfection, entrenching us completely into their lives and messing with our minds as the final reveal rushes toward us.
It’s in this reveal where the difference between scares and true horror is made frighteningly plain. Ghost Stories batters you into submission with chair-jumping “BOO!” moments, but it all gives way to a final truth which makes you almost wish for those moments again. Goodman may not be the valiant people’s champion he believes himself to be; getting to the heart of his struggles with himself and the paranormal is the sneaky theme which runs parallel to each story and lurks in the background like a wraith waiting to pounce. And when you arrive at the destination Ghost Stories sets out for you, you won’t worry about being scared anymore; you’ll worry about being truly afraid.