26 April 2018

Ghost Stories review

It's hard to look back over the last half a decade or so and not come to the conclusion that horror is having one hell of a comeback. I mean, in the last 2 years alone we've seen the release of a virtual glut of genuinely great and massively varied horror films - you've got Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, a grounded, violent and incredibly tense siege thriller; Andy Muschietti's It, which garnered the kind of mainstream attention most films would kill for; Jordan Peele's Get Out, a razor sharp social satire that should've won Best Picture; Robert Eggers' The Witch, which is like nothing else I've ever seen; and even more recently John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, which has been released to both rave reviews and unexpected box office success. Horror seems to be host to a lot of interesting voices at the moment, and they're all doing an incredible amount of work towards helping the genre shed the trashy slasher image that the 80's/90's left it burdened with. But until now, they've almost all been American voices - what happens when the British speak up?

The result is Ghost Stories, a supernatural horror anthology that's both radically different to any of the aforementioned films and, unfortunately, not quite as successful at doing what it sets out to do. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, it started life as a stage play in 2010, and follows paranormal investigator/skeptic Professor Phillip Goodman as he is given three cases by ex-skeptic Charles Cameron that supposedly prove the existence of the supernatural. The first of these follows a nightwatchman as he works a graveyard shift in an abandoned asylum for women; the second follows a young man who has been left deeply shaken after his car broke down in the middle of nowhere; the third follows a wealthy businessman forced to spend the night alone in his enormous, isolated house while his pregnant wife is in hospital.

In terms of structure, it's not a million miles away from the "White Christmas" episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror - a quick set-up establishes our main character, followed by three short stories and then a finale that attempts to tie them all together. But ultimately, it's a comparison that doesn't do Ghost Stories many favours - while those three short stories definitely succeed at scaring the audience, the finale that attempts to tie them together in a dramatically satisfying way... well, it just doesn't work at all. We're shown throughout that there is a larger mystery at play in the background here, but the answer to that mystery end up being not just deeply unoriginal, but also wholly unearned by the story itself. To go back to Black Mirror for a moment, the ending of "White Christmas" works so well specifically because the episode itself is building towards it throughout, each story introducing us to a new piece of information that ends up being vital to the finale - here, it doesn't build on the stories that preceded it all, instead undermining them completely with a trite reveal that comes pretty much out of nowhere.

It's a deeply dissatisfying note for Ghost Stories to end on that can't help but leave a bad taste in the mouth, and that's a real shame when the three stories that precede it are at worst quite entertaining and at best genuinely gripping, if a touch uninspired (even done well, a little girl ghost is still just a little girl ghost, after all). If anything though, that itself is something of a testament to Nyman and Dyson's film-making - the ideas that drive these three stories are ones that we've seen plenty of times before, but solid direction and really great understanding of how to make this stuff work means that it just does. It's scary in that really enjoyable way where you can't help but laugh at yourself the moment after jumping out of your skin, an energy only built upon by Nyman and Dyson's ability to weave some quite funny moments into these three stories without ever undercutting the tension that they're building throughout.

It helps, of course, that the main performances are across the board great, easily able to sell us on the reality of the weird stuff happening around them. That's not much of a surprise when it comes to the first and third stories, which are led by Paul Whitehouse and Martin Freeman respectively, but ultimately it's Alex Lawther as the main character of the second story that I was most impressed by. He plays his character with all the stability of a poorly built house of cards in the middle of a hurricane, a shivering and sweaty ball of neurosis whose deeply odd mannerisms and general state of being are just as likely to make you laugh as they are to creep you the hell out, and the end result is both deeply unnerving and truly fascinating.

But even in spite of all that, I can't help but come back to Ghost Stories' twist ending and feel really... frustrated. Cheated, even. I don't know if it works better on stage or if it's an ill-advised change made for the screen, but either way it's a deeply disappointing end to an otherwise quite entertaining movie, one that wastes a lot of the goodwill that Ghost Stories had been building up until that point. Is it disappointing enough to ruin Ghost Stories completely? I don't think so (those short stories really are quite good, after all) - but it's certainly a real shame when a stronger ending could have elevated this overtly British slice of supernatural horror from merely quite good into something very special indeed.

3 stars

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