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Friday, May 4, 2018

Review: GHOST STORIES Has Frights and Flaws

Professor Phillip Goodman hosts a show called Psychic Cheats, the kind of thing where he tries to debunk claims of the paranormal. Introduced revealing a hacky public psychic grifting the grieving for a TV show for the fraud that he is, Goodman gets called into action when his idol, a fellow debunker who went missing years back, contacts him and asks him to look into three cases he could never disprove. Each case finds Goodman interviewing someone who hasn't just had a brush with the paranormal, but a full-on assault by it, and each interview leads to a flashback in which we see just how terrifyingly close their brush with the paranormal was.

The film, then, essentially takes the form of a horror anthology series, in which a loose framing device - a professional debunker examining three distinct cases - sets the stage for three separate horror stories. And, while I think all three stories are quite flawed to varying degrees, they're still eerie and entertaining, quick and creepy snippets that work pretty well to unnerve you. Writers/directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, adapting their own stage play, even do a good job where most anthologies falter, in maintaining tension in the bookend sections. And each horror story pulls from a slightly different classical tradition. The night watchman in an abandoned facility, the teenage boy having a bad encounter in the woods, the expectant father who finds something disturbing in the nursery. While all limited to the present day, these are otherwise all fairly classical kinds of ghost stories.

The film is retro in some other, less palatable, ways too -- I'm struggling to remember if there are any women with speaking roles. A small handful, I think; certainly no one important. The cast that is here is... uneven, though largely solid. Alex Lawther struggles the most. His twitchy teen boy is initially unnerving, showing the shell he's become, but his performance is barely different in his flashback, suggesting that his brush with the afterlife didn't leave quite so profound a mark as I'd imagined... and that Lawther's nerves-amped-to-11 schtick may have been sadly limited. Martin Freeman is the film's biggest delight, at least at first, a fast-talking banker haunted by a single horrible night. Freeman has a deadpan everyman charisma that sells the disconnect well, though his story is also sadly the slightest of the three. Between the two are Paul Whitehouse and writer/director Nyman, both of whom are quite solid, though neither of whom stand out particularly. Whitehouse has a lunky working-class machismo that he brings to his character, and while Nyman plays aloof and superior well, he struggles a bit as his wraparound segment gets weirder.

Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson are clearly talented. The film initially displayed, I thought, a lot of promise, as the pair have a definite talent for pacing and revealing jump scares. Jump scares aren't necessarily my favorite aspect of horror, but I've seen dozens if not hundreds of horror films that try and fail to build an atmosphere of tension out of them. Ghost Stories does so, seemingly effortlessly, one of the few non-James Wan films that manage to really pull off jump scares as reliably. There's a pervasive sense of dread hanging over the first two stories the film tells. But, while that works fantastically, weaknesses in the heart of the script are already nibbling away in the back of your mind. "Wait... why did...?" you'll find yourself asking.

On the one hand, this is the rare horror film that really does answer every one of those "Wait... what?" moments; on the other, the answer is truly, almost spectacularly stupid, and it completely derails the film. It's hard to really get into where my problems with the film's climax stem from without spoiling the movie entirely; suffice to say, just as explaining a joke often drains it of its humor, explaining the psychological underpinning of the horror here completely neuters the film's thrills. And while I still enjoyed some of the performances and found many of the film's scares engaging and well-constructed, I still left frustrated. There's stuff to like here, if you can accept that it will end on its weakest trick.

Ghost Stories is out now in limited release, including at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, Ghost Stories stars Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, and Alex Lawther.
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