Phillip Goodman, whose life’s work has been to debunk the supernatural, is contacted by the once-famous paranormal investigator Dr. Charles Cameron, who challenges Goodman to research three cases that defeated him.
Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, the movie’s co-directors and co-writers, have crafted a stylish and smart piece of work, which is not so much straight horror as suspense and psychological drama construed as an homage to horror. The performances in the three segments, particularly Alex Lawther as the nerve-jangled teenager Simon Rifkind and Martin Freeman as the cool, haughty Mike Priddle, are consistently engaging and fun to watch, but it’s Nyman himself who deserves credit for anchoring the film and weaving the chapters together with the believability of his reactions.
As is natural with portmanteau movies, the audience will seek clues as to what connection there might be between the three cases that Cameron throws in Goodman’s lap, beyond, that is, their status as unresolved. Nyman and Dyson’s script does a nice job laying out the breadcrumbs; visual cues involving fingers reaching up to faces, figures in shadows, numbers appearing in certain combinations… Another film-making element that lends the movie cohesion, and informs Goodman’s character development, is Frank Illfman’s beautiful music, by turns epic, creepy, mournful, stately and elegiac. Score highlights include “The Allerton Suite”, “Priddle’s Theme”, “Maria’s Theme” and “Goodman’s Theme”.
Ole Bratt Birkeland, the film’s cinematographer, also deserves to be complemented. He manages to help infuse each of the three mini-stories with a distinct ambiance, to create individual moods, while at the same time staying true to the film’s overall aesthetic, suggestive of a chilly underlying reality. The film’s elegance and concision probably derive at least in part from its story having started as a play; effects are accomplished with minimal means, and a feeling of sly stagecraft and misdirection pervades.
Ghost Stories packs an admirable amount of material into its one and a half hours’ running time: teenage angst, bullying, loneliness, the fear of the dark, existential terror, anxieties around fatherhood, the emptiness of materialism, and above all the way the human brain can recast figures only partially perceived in the real world into dramatic characters that help symbolically enact one’s innermost feelings.
I’m thankful that the film actually sidesteps the rationality/skeptics vs. faith/supernatural dichotomy it appears to frame up at first (though from a reductionist perspective, nothing paranormal happens); Goodman isn’t “right” anymore than his fictitious interview subjects are, as Goodman’s entire quest to deconstruct and rationally explicate their stories is made up in the first place, as are the stories themselves. (This also retroactively addresses whatever specific accusations of implausibility--for instance, when the night watchman Tony enters that dark underground chamber, obviously a trap—one may level at the three individual segments as they unfold). Instead, Goodman is merely interacting with various facets of his own psyche; every event we see in Ghost Stories is nothing but one of Goodman’s thoughts visualized. Yes, this is a variation of “he woke up and it was all a dream,” but the ingenious twist is that he didn’t wake up--nor is he likely ever to, as the film’s final scene makes clear.
In a way, this narrative Sixth Sense-s the classical British horror anthology—some of my favorites include Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Asylum (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973)--, literalizing the notion that an anthology’s various segments or chapters are unified via the interlinking character by literally making them occurrences within said character’s mind. In that sense the story’s final reveal recalls films like Fight Club (1999) and Identity (2003), in which key characters are ultimately revealed to be surplus personalities residing within other characters. Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000), which manifests the inside of an unhinged, traumatized mind through stunning set designs, also comes to mind. There’s a lovely bit of understated homage to perhaps the first and still greatest of all British horror anthologies, too, Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945): just like that film ends with the realization that we are caught in a serpentine, infinitely repeating loop, here too we learn that everything we’ve seen is part of the endlessly recurrent (“No, not again,” Goodman whines when the ghoul approaches) and reassembling landscape of Goodman’s fantastically fractured innerscape.
The ghosts of Ghost Stories are the wraiths we all carry within us, our memories and fears, our emotional biases and blind spots. By portraying these elements metaphorically, Nyman and Dyson are able not only to delve into areas that would normally be off-limits to our conscious minds, but to depict the fascinating process by which we try to delude and mis-direct ourselves away from them, inventing stories to conceal the truth of who we are. When the Charles Cameron persona says early on that he now looks back upon his work with shame, that he sees the arrogance of his enterprise, this becomes, poignantly, Goodman’s self-critique of his own choices. “We’ll believe anything that gives us hope that there’ll be something beyond,” Goodman says at the film’s outset; in hindsight this turns out to be a tragically and ironically eloquent summation of his own predicament.