MOVIE REVIEW: Ghost Stories

(Image courtesy of IFC Films)

(Image courtesy of IFC Films)


The main character of IFC Midnight’s Ghost Stories is a professor who has set out for years to debunk the fake reports and personalities parading around touting, in his eyes, the sham of the paranormal.  We meet Philip Goodman, played by co-writer/co-director Andy Nyman, exposing a charlatan television psychic right on his own live show. No matter the case, Goodman leans on the same mantra that becomes this film’s first life lesson.

LESSON #1: THE BRAIN SEES WHAT IT WANTS TO SEE-- Goodman is a man of science with a disregard of spiritual lifestyles.  When others experience coincidental tingles or horrific visions, he sees fragile neuroses and ill people creating from their own imagination things that aren’t simply there.  He reinforces the prevailing humility to admit things aren’t always what they seem.

Ghost Stories dares to test Mr. Goodman and that lesson.  A former well-known paranormal investigator named Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), who has been missing out of the public eye for decades, has followed Goodman’s work and extends an invitation to meet.  A childhood inspiration for Philip, the aged and ailing Cameron presents himself as ardently against Goodman’s disparaging work. He challenges Goodman with a gauntlet of three unsolved studies that he believes will shatter the professor’s lack of superstitious belief.  Driven to prove himself and his theories against his former idol, Goodman revisits the cold cases to begin his own investigations.

What Philip finds are a trio of escalating horrors that prey on existential terror.  The first file is a night watchman (sketch comedy veteran Paul Whitehouse) and widower haunted by two things, a daughter afflicted with pseudocoma (also known as locked-in syndrome) and memories from encountering the apparent apparition of former girl asylum patient on his work grounds.  The second is a now-paranoid and occult-obsessed teen (Alex Lawther of The Imitation Game and Goodbye Christopher Robin) who believes he struck and provoked a beastial devil with his car.  The final claim comes from a chatty corporate money man (Martin Freeman, the biggest name of the bunch) of the successful upper class who swears to a poltergeist presence invading his home during the same time he lost his wife and future offspring in childbirth.  

Each interview and chilling scenario expands in rich detail into flashback reenactments of their testimonies, shifting the time and perspective away from the listening Goodman.  These patient, yet swift treks are set to formal and stern music from Haim Frank Ilfman (Big Bad Wolves) that push chords of urgency when necessary.  The auditory sensations combine with the smooth tracks and zooms from TV cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland.  With a delicious interplay of foreground and background layers and nearly universal use of raw lighting, Birkeland makes the proceedings and Grant Montgomery’s (The Limehouse Golem) production design and location selections look strikingly natural for a shock of realism rather than any artificial polish of over-production.  

All three of these investigative journeys within this formidable cinematic atmosphere are interconnected, just not in any expected way for Goodman, his wavering beliefs, or us in the audience.  Led by Nyman, not a single performance is cheesy or a gross stereotype. Each storytelling encounter is populated by intriguing and lived-in characters. The frazzled and twitchy traits come forth from committed performances especially from the three case subjects.  The scintillating final twenty minutes are daring and phenomenal. To dare revealing any of the genius behind the cliff of subverted expectations and warped truths Mr. Goodman is figuratively thrown off of would be outlandishly wrong. The swerves shine with old school simplicity.

Those strengths comes the cohesive writing retained by the do-it-all Andy Nyman (recently seen in The Commuter) and his fellow co-writer/co-director and frequent Tracey Ullman collaborator Jeremy Dyson to adapt their own anthology play of the same name for the film screen.  Their expansion plan was very sharp and forgoes the thirst to hack and slay mindlessly like most current horror offerings. The shrewd focus of Ghost Stories is scarce on spectacle and firmly rooted in sinister nuance.  The over-caffeinated and desensitized segment of genre fans might call it boring, while the veterans who remember effective minimalism will be squeezed by the twisted nerve leading to solid suspense.    

LESSON #2: NO ONE IS A BELIEVER OF EVIL UNTIL EVIL COMES TO THEM-- This is a tangent from street smart versus book smart and the experiential topping the theoretical or rhetorical.  Experiences will twist minds more than studies and words. For example, reading a news article about increased small crime in your neighborhood will raise your eyebrow of awareness, but being the victim of robbery of assault multiplies that exponentially to full-on belief and trauma.  A similar parallel is made with science versus spirituality here in Ghost Stories.  This circles back to flip Lesson #1’s humility to serve its own ideas that things are exactly how they seem because seeing is believing.

LESSON #3: THE COSTLY DECISIONS MADE IN FEAR-- One principle confronted in Ghost Stories is that of existential terror within the terror management theory. It pertains to the self-preservation instinct in people to fear anything predictable or unpredictable that could lead to our inevitable death.  Cautiousness can get you killed as easily as recklessness. Read all about it as Cameron and Goodman wrestle with the concept.  The positive track is to not allow your life to be ruled by superstition and fear, no matter your size of spiritual faith from 0 to 100.