Some of the best modern horror films are those that build their terror around distinctly human conditions that scare the hell out of us—deep anxiety, unending hopelessness, crippling guilt. They’re the conflicts at the core of our humanity, and those that writer/director partners Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman tackle with their newly released horror anthology film, Ghost Stories.
Originally written and produced as a (wildly successful) stage play in London, the film follows skeptic Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman)—known in his field of Parapsychology for debunking fake psychics—as he works through three cases of paranormal activity that an old professional idol has sent him to disprove. Sure enough, Professor Goodman is haunted by his own demons and finds that these ghost stories connect rather intimately to his own life.
The first story belongs to Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), whose unfortunate circumstances have left him widowed, estranged from his ill daughter, and stuck in a dead-end job as a night watchman at an abandoned psychiatric hospital. While unfortunate, these circumstances did quickly paint him a sympathetic working man, which brought a relatable realism to the segment.
Tony’s ghost story takes shape within the hospital, and this scenescape was definitely the most dynamic of the three stories. The dark, cavernous rooms made for intense shots—like that of a bobbing flashlight beam, slowly shrinking away to the jangle of Tony’s key ring as he disappeared into the mouth of a crumbling room, looking for a ghost. In terms of scares, I felt that this first segment was definitely the strongest of the three.
The next segments centers around the young, troublesome Simon (Alex Lawther), who has a problem compulsively lying to his parents. One lie-filled night, while Simon was illicitly driving his parents car through the woods, he struck an… animal… and was never quite the same again.
This segment was both surprising and frustrating to me. It was surprising because I was blown away by Lawther’s incredible performance. It was so strong, unhinged, funny, and real that I was both taken aback and drawn into his scenes. Unfortunately, this was also the least explored of the segments, and that’s frustrating.
I would have loved to have had been played with and tortured more by the directors here, especially in the claustrophobic scene that takes place when Professor Goodman meets Simon in his attic bedroom. What seems like a fairly unimportant segment is perhaps one of the most revealing, once the pieces of the puzzle are put together at the end of the film.
The third segment leads us to the end of the film and stars Martin Freeman as Mike Priddle—a wealthy banker home alone while his pregnant wife endures a troubled labor at the hospital.
This segment definitely felt the most thrilling of the three, not because of the events themselves but how they were brought to life through creative effects, excellent performances (a bad Martin Freeman performance? Not possible), and great direction.
Overall, the direction is really what made this film. Seemingly simple cinematographic choices, like limited use of lighting to elicit anxiety and unrest in the viewers, made scenes effective, as did inspired decisions, like only presenting distorted and unclear views of the monsters.
Dyson and Nyman also did a great job alongside cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland to adapt the filming style to each of the three unique stories without losing cohesion on a whole.
Each story represented a disparate paranormal happening, with its own monster and scare to deliver, and the framing, specifically, was conscientiously modified to suit each storyline. In the first segment, for instance, we saw a lot of low, wide-angle shots taking advantage of the space, as a lot of that scare was atmospheric. Contrastingly, the second segment was rooted in Simon’s mania and featured a lot of tight, unsettling close-ups to intensify the audience’s response.
The last segment was more metaphorical and nuanced in its actual scare and was shot in a style that felt to me like arthouse horror blended with classic haunted house elements. It ends somewhat more tragically than the previous two, which is quickly overshadowed as we catapult into the final with Professor Goodman.
Nyman’s performance here is not one that should be overlooked. He quite literally ties the film together, and beyond that, the audience shares his eye—he’s our window into this world. As he struggles to make sense of the events happening to and around him, we’re right there, theorizing, postulating, and trying to put the pieces together along with him.
In the end, we’re reminded that things are not always as they appear.
The ending twists, turns, and flips us into a freefall. We’re forced to let go of our preconceptions about everything we’ve seen, and we desperately grasp for something to hold onto, but nothing is within reach. The movie swirls around us to a close, and we’re left motionless.
It was a treat getting to experience all of the intelligently devised spooks over the film’s 97-minute run time. And though not a perfect movie in every way, Ghost Stories treats the horror genres and themes it calls to with a caring and professional hand and still manages to genuinely earn each and every one of its unique scares.