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GHOST STORIES is a Classic, Trippy Chiller (Review)

GHOST STORIES is a Classic, Trippy Chiller (Review)

I’m never more afraid—needlessly usually—than when I’m completely alone, in an empty house, or an empty stretch of road at night, and there’s nothing to keep my mind occupied and it begins to wander to the dark and upsetting. It’s something I think everyone can relate to, and one that can strike fear into a person without the aid of special effects. The new British horror indie Ghost Stories accomplishes that level of fear pretty much all the way through, harking back to classic ghost literature and ’70s horror movies. My favorite.

The film is an adaptation of the stage production written and directed by actor Andy Nyman and League of Gentlemen member Jeremy Dyson. They return to write and direct the big screen version with Nyman as the lead. It’s astonishing to me the movie is as effective as it is with a vignette-driven narrative and an incredibly small cast. It proves scares come from the unknown, and the tricks of the light, and sounds of little things breaking the silence. As the movie constantly reminds us, the brain sees what it wants to see and can’t be trusted, but it can still scare the pants off you.

Nyman plays Professor Phillip Goodman, a staunchly scientific debunker of psychics and mediums, who hosts a show where he exposes these frauds live on air. He doesn’t believe in the supernatural in any way and blames his father’s strict religious beliefs for the troubles his family had when he was young. Goodman is contacted by his idol, an author and TV host from the ’70s who investigated and exposed supposed supernatural occurrences. He’s been missing for decades and says he’s found three cases that have caused him to call his skepticism into question. He challenges Goodman to investigate them for himself, and tell him they aren’t real.

Goodman then goes to investigate each of the cases and we get to see them from each man’s point of view: an angry nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) has a terrifying encounter in the derelict bowels of an old mental hospital; a terrified and paranoid young man (Alex Lawther) meets something sinister out in a pitch black country road; a wealthy businessman (Martin Freeman) has an unwelcome guest in his new baby’s room. Each and every story is thoroughly unsettling and exemplifies the fear of isolation and the dark which are the basest fears in all of us. Every shadow, the corner of every room, behind every door, there could be something, or it could all be in your head.

Dyson and Nyman are clearly well versed in British ghost literature and films. There are nods to ghost story writers like M.R. James and E.F. Benson with their descriptions of much more tactile ghosts than what we’re used to seeing in films. There are visuals that reminded me a lot of the Ghost Story for Christmas cycle made for television, most based on James stories, and specifically their use of horrifying makeup and simple camera tricks to elicit maximum fright. And the structure of the stories reminds me of some of the Amicus portmanteau movies, specifically Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood.

Most modern ghost movies tend to think of the ghost or the haunting as an external evil which infests a domicile and needs to be exorcised, but ghosts are most effective in the traditional sense if they reflect the fears and foibles of the lead character. They are being “haunted” after all—by something internal as well as external. Ghost Stories brilliantly makes all the ghosts quite different from each other, and each reflecting the person telling the story, while all of them also reflect Goodman in some fashion. It’s a perfect and subtle way of making all of the ghosts important and not merely just for scares.

Ghost Stories takes a definite turn at a certain point and becomes a much different, though still intriguing, movie, as Professor Goodman’s own mind becomes effected by the investigation. There are some genuine frights in this last section of the movie, but I do think it works better in its vignette form. The three stories are incredibly simple, often quite funny, and each has its own flavor and clearly defined ghost. The atmosphere created throughout the movie is suitably gloomy and sparse, and the story takes its time to set up each big scare, of which the movie has several. I jumped, I’m not ashamed to admit.

I found Ghost Stories to be a delightfully chilling, supremely effective horror film. Its pace is more laconic than you’re probably used to from a movie of this type, but it’s fully in keeping with the British tradition. It’s got terrifying images, fantastic performances, and a satisfyingly weird ending. That’s all my brain could want to see.

4 out of 5 burritos:

Images: IFC Midnight

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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