The portmanteau (anthology) horror films of the 60s and 70s from Britain-based Amicus and Hammer Film Productions offered spine-chilling and stylish guilty pleasure for the horror geeks (which also provided lot of material for lovable parodies). These anthology horror movies were, in turn, inspired by the classic Ealing Studio feature Dead of Night (1945). In fact, the old film still possesses the ability to scare us on a deeper level. But modern horror anthology features mostly brought upon a stale viewing experience. The supernatural intrusions remain anything but imaginative and scary. Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s debut feature Ghost Stories (2018) definitely doesn’t raise the benchmarks of modern anthology horror.
Still, it pays a fairly entertaining spooky tribute to old-school portmanteau predecessors.
Ghost Stories is an adaptation of a stage play of the same name, created by Nyman and Dyson.
The stage version, which was a smash hit (sold half a million tickets around the world), pushed them to make the leap from theater to cinema.
Nyman plays the central character Professor Phillip Goodman, a professional debunker of alleged supernatural phenomena and psychics.
He’s made a name for himself through the TV show ‘Psychic Cheats’, where exploitative fraudsters posing as mediums are unmasked.
Professor Goodman is introduced in the faux-documentary-style prologue, explaining his successes.
He pretty much works like the famous American magician and paranormal skeptic James Randi. “We have to be very careful of what we believe in”, he warns us earlier.
Goodman initially touches on the downbeat aspects of his childhood and adolescent life.
He’s lived in the desolate quarters of Yorkshire with a controlling and devoutly religious father.
The professor cites paranormal debunker of the 70s Mr. Charles Cameron as his childhood hero. However, the man has vanished without a trace at the height of his investigative fame.
To the professor’s surprise, one day his idol reaches him through a cassette tape.
As per the instructions in the tape, Goodman goes to a shabby coastal caravan park.
There he meets the very old Cameron.
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Mr. Cameron, it seems, has had a crisis of faith.
Furthermore, he challenges Goodman to investigate three stories that have nearly converted him into a believer.
Chafed and impatient, Goodman decides to investigate the unsolved cases himself.
Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchman at a decrepit abandoned psychiatric hospital witnesses something terrifying.
Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), an anxious teenager on a late night drive among the woods is startled by a thing hailing from purgatory.
Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), an ex-investment banker is haunted by a poltergeist in the comfy quarters of his mansion as his wife in the hospital goes through painful labor.
From a psychological point-of-view, the causes of the otherworldly experience seem apparent.
But little clues and coincidences are strewn through the tales to make it more than simple.
And then, like magicians peeling the cloth to reveal their trick, Nyman and Dyson get to the narrative’s twisted (yet somehow familiar) meta-layer.
The individual stories are neither original nor a nerve-shredding assault on our senses.
However, the succession of well-executed jump-scares creates an atmosphere of unease.
Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland’s dynamically expressive lensing conveys oppressive sense of place.
In addition, the camera delightfully acknowledges the tapestry of motifs scattered in plain sight.
Nyman and Dyson vigorously unearth the scary possibilities present in the three entirely different settings: a dark and broken industrial building, misty and windy woods, and a lavish, tightly-sealed nursery room.
Performances are the high point of the film with Freeman (he dials up his usual dapperness few notches above), Whitehouse, and Lawther perfectly balancing dark humor and fearsome emotions.
If jump-scares and a climactic curtain-raiser (that hints at plethora of social and personal themes, from classic conflict, anti-semitism to bullying and emotional repression) are all necessary for you to enjoy a horror film, Ghost Stories would be fulfilling.
But for those expecting a terrifying experience, devoid of familiarities and which haunts our mind long after the screen turns black, the film doesn’t offer much.
There’s momentary thrill but it seems hollow and daft the more you think about it.
I especially disliked the ‘psychological’ twist (tying up every loose end with a ‘realistic’ explanation).
It was too gimmicky and banal even for an anthology horror.
The film would have been better if it simply remained as a triptych of paranormal tales.
Nevertheless, Ghost Stories (97 minutes) is a fairly enjoyable old-fashioned creep-show. Traditional scares that are staged with reverence and adoration for classic British portmanteaus drive the narrative.
By Arun Kumar
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’