I’m “biast” (con): I didn’t love the stage play (but I had completely forgotten I’d seen it before I saw this)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Paranormal debunker Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Commuter) is good at what he does. We can see that from the opening sequence of Ghost Stories in which he reveals a stage psychic — one of those leeches who feed off grief by purporting to speak to our beloved dead — to be a total charlatan in front of his audience. But will he be stymied by the three cases brought to his attention by his longtime hero, another professional skeptic, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), whom Goodman grew up watching on TV? Cameron is now an old man and dying, and he begs Goodman to find the truth behind these few cases he couldn’t debunk. We’re meant to presume, it seems, that Cameron doesn’t want to have been wrong all these years about the existence of the supernatural and, perhaps, an afterlife. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to die with these last puzzles unsolved.
It’s a potentially intriguing setup for what is to be an homage to 60s and 70s horror anthology movies, especially of the British persuasion, as writer-directors Nyman and Jeremy Dyson grew up on and are explicitly invoking with Ghost Stories. But what’s to follow is a collection not of complete short tales but what feels like the highlights from much longer stories only briefly sketched and left maddeningly unfinished. It’s as if we get only the atmosphere and the “good bits” from those tales: the spooks and jump scares come with little context, no real investigation by Goodman, and no explanation, either supernatural or natural.
First Goodman interviews Tony (Paul Whitehouse: The Death of Stalin, Alice Through the Looking Glass), about his encounter with a spirit while he worked as a night watchman in a rundown and apparently empty medical facility. (What is he meant to be guarding? We have no idea.) Tony is terrified relating his experience, but we never share in his fear. Next Goodman meets Simon (Alex Lawther: X+Y, The Imitation Game), who had chanced across an unlikely creature while driving alone through the woods one night. There’s a bit of humor in this story, and with almost nothing to work with Lawther turns Simon into a weirdly appealing oddball, but there’s still no resolution here either, except that I was resolved to watch the actually terrifying The Ritual again. Finally Goodman meets Mike (Martin Freeman: Black Panther, Sherlock), who tells of a haunting in his home that is bog-standard poltergeist stuff we’ve seen onscreen countless times before.
Ghost Stories offers one truly shocking moment, but it comes out of nowhere and is disconnected from everything else going on around it. Eventually we come to realize that the movie — based on a stage play that I also did not find scary — never wanted to make any sense and was never going to make sense. It features no real confrontation with the paranormal or with the human beliefs that can make it so powerfully appealing, but it wants to have its skepticism and its supernaturalism at the same time. It thinks it’s psychologically insightful, but it has little to say that comes with any real depth. It tries to make a virtue of its inconsistencies and its plot holes, but that only feels like a shell game. Ghost Stories is barely a movie at all: it’s just a tease of one.