Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: GHOST STORIES

by Patrick Bromley
Here's a horror movie that means it.

Ghost Stories, a new anthology (sort of) based on the successful stage play by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, is the kind of horror movie that doesn't get made much anymore. It's austere in that very British way, sure, but not trying to distance itself from the genre the way some modern day Hammer wannabes like Winchester might. Ghost Stories doesn't want to be Hammer. It wants to be Amicus. At this, it is mostly successful. There's an air of class to the film, but it's not afraid to get weird and pulpy the way the old Amicus movies would be. More than anything, Ghost Stories wants to be really, really scary. As great a place as horror has been in recent years for all the ways it bends the genre and uses it to explore other ideas, it's actually sort of rare to find one that commits this hard to just being scary.
Nyman, who stars and co-directs with Dyson, plays Phillip Goodman, a man who has devoted his life to debunking the supernatural after a strict religious childhood led him to question all belief. He meets with a famous paranormal investigator, who tasks Goodman with looking into three cases of ghost sightings. The first involves a man (Paul Whitehouse) working as a security guard in an asylum, who encounters the ghost of a young girl. The second centers around a teenager (Alex Lawther) who hits what looks like the devil with his car. The final case to be investigated is that of Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a city employee who began to be haunted by an angry ghost right around the same time as his wife was delivering their first (and only) baby. Ghosts?? Yes!

While not officially an anthology film, the structure of Ghost Stories pretty closely mirrors the omnibus movies coming out of the UK in the 1970s. It's an effective approach for the movie, which isn't just about belief but about the nature of storytelling itself. Even more than in most anthologies, though, there is a sameness to the three tales in Ghost Stories, both in their construction and in their payoff: lone white man wanders around a quiet location until he comes face to face with the spirit of something he fears most, each time informed by something we know about that character. One or two loud but effective jump scares. Repeat. Nyman and Dyson even choose to end each of the three "ghost stories" the exact same way, cutting away right at the point of contact. The reasoning behind some of these choices and the way the individual stories connect together is very deliberate and becomes clearer as the movie progresses, none of which can be discussed without major spoilers and so won't be done here.
These choices, though, and where Ghost Stories goes in its final act, wind up derailing the movie for me. The Amicus comparisons continue, with a "host" appearing and pulling back the curtain to suggest another level to everything that has come before. Here I am applauding the way the filmmakers really lean into making this as scary as possible, never attempting to undercut the creepiness with a joke, and then script goes out of its way to provide context for everything we're seeing and explain away anything that might be scary -- the resulting tale is determined, like its main character, to destroy the possibility of belief. Ghost Stories winds up taking so many of the things I like about it and using them against me.

Two-thirds of it is a movie I really like, though, and that shouldn't be discounted, especially when I've seen stuff recently of which I liked no thirds. I can't say enough good things about the score by Haim Frank Ilfman, which is beautiful and haunting and perfectly sets the mood for the movie I so want Ghost Stories to be. The scares are executed well, and some of the ghost/creature designs are very cool. Because the movie is based on a stage play in which a number of practical effects were performed live, there's a magic-trick feel to a number of moments that are more thrilling than any CG-created bullshit in this or any other movie. Modern effects are rarely about people pulling something off. It's fun to see people pull something off. Ghost Stories is able to pull off some cool things.
Horror must be in a pretty great place when a movie can be as strong as Ghost Stories is and still not end up on my list of favorites for the year. I love the tone of the film and its construction, but it ultimately goes to places I'm not willing to follow. I think every fan of the genre should see the movie because it's really going to connect with some of you, and because it's cool to see the spirit of those Amicus anthologies living on in contemporary horror. As a stage production, I'm sure it was incredible. As a movie, though, it's just pretty good.



Ghost Stories is now playing limited release.

11 comments:

  1. Hey Patrick - where did you watch this on VOD? I checked Amazon and Google and don't see it.

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    1. My mistake. I thought this was getting a VOD release as well, but I guess not. I updated the line at the bottom and took that part out. Sorry!!

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    2. No worries. Sometimes these get pushed back so guessing that's what happened. I'll be on the lookout. Cheers and have a great weekend!

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    3. It is available on Cable VOD starting today (that channel on your TV where you can order movies that are "Now in Theaters"). It'll go to other VOD platforms in a few weeks.

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    4. Good lookin' out! Confirmed for FIOS. Cheers!

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  2. Bummer, I was really hoping I could watch this this weekend! It's not playing in any theater in the entire state of Washington! Us Seattlites will just have to wait. Great review, Patrick, thanks!

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  3. I was really looking forward to this just because it looks so damn serious, but now I'm worried about that ending you mentioned. I think this is a spoiler avoiding question but does the whole tone of the movie shift at the end so that it's NOT taking itself seriously?

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    1. Hmmm...now I want to see it for another reason too.

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  4. It's playing in only one theater in NYC for a week (IFC Center). Tempted to see it on the big screen, but is it worth paying 16 bucks for? Hm-mmmm...

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  5. I loved it. Felt a lot like the BBC movies made for the christmas ghost hour (Whistle And I'll Come For You is really scary).

    I like that the movie rarely uses close ups to build up the scares. I haven't seen a horror film in a while using master shots to such effect. It even pulls off some more quiet jump scares. It's an exccellent ghost ride that feels fresh compared to most current American horror films.

    The ending I thought was really creepy and even left me kind of shook up. The last 20 minutes balances humor and nastyness in a great way.

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