Horror anthologies generally have the same bones. A wraparound story opens and closes the film and gives a purpose for why these stories are being told. For the same reason that a character in a found footage movie must state why they won't put down the camera (no matter what), a wraparound answers the fundamental "why is this happening?" in the audience's mind. In Tales from the Darkside, a young boy is stalling for time so he tells 3 tales to a witch before she eats him. In the V/H/S franchise, strangers keep breaking into a weird house and watching weirder VHS tapes. You get the idea. The wraparounds in these films are usually the weakest element. Not so for Ghost Stories. This wraparound very much matters and will reward keen-eyed and aware viewers.
Ghost Stories started life as a stage play by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. In the play, Professor Goodman (portrayed by Nyman in both the play and film) is a professional debunker of the supernatural and is giving a lecture on three of his cases. As he regales the audience with the facts of each case, the play switches perspective and shows the audience what happened to each victim / survivor. Making good use of jump scares, special effects, and good old fashioned theatrics, the audience is treated to a unique horror experience where the only relief from the tension and scares comes between each of the three cases, as the focus changes back to the lecture.
This narrative mostly survives the transition between stage to screen. Wisely, Dyson and Nyman have jettisoned the lecture format from the stage play and created a new plot where Professor Goodman is given the three cases from another debunker, one of his idols. This allows the story to unfold in a much more dynamic (and cinematic) fashion as Goodman himself must actively investigate each case and interact with the survivors. Each case still features a flashback to the original events and this is where the horror happens.
The first tale involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehorse) who must guard a creepy building that used to serve as an asylum. Of the cases presented in Ghost Stories, this will feel the most familiar and well-trodden to horror fans. Some effective jump scares and tension persist throughout the segment, but this is by far the weakest of the three cases primarily because it just feels so familiar.
The movie then leaps into the second case which involves a teenager (Alex Lawther) whose car breaks down on a lonely road in the middle of the woods. Before we get to this case, I have to address the scenes involving the boy's entirely too strange home before the flashback. These scenes were among my favorite moments in the whole movie and were really just window-dressing before the second case. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it - some A+ unnerving weirdness. Lawther brings a wide-eyed intensity to his performance and really sells being a terrified teenager in the middle of nowhere. The movie does have some humor and most of the laughs are found in this middle section.
Finally, we meet Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a man who is about to become a father later in life. However, a poltergeist in his home is not going to make things easy for him as he awaits the delivery of his child. This is the best and most intense segment. Temperatures will drop and furniture will stack, just like you expect. Watching this film with Roger, I can tell you that this is the section that caused him to watch through his fingers. Some good practical effects and sound design really help sell the scares and dread.
Not to spoil anything, but there is some good connective tissue between these cases. Engaged and attentive viewers will be rewarded by paying attention to colors, numbers, etc. It does matter and I personally liked the way it came together. If anything is to be debated about this movie, it will likely be the ending which will not make everyone happy. Another point of contention will be how abruptly each case ends. In a lot of ways, effective short-form horror is not that different from a joke. An audience is looking for a good setup and a good punchline. All of these cases end so abruptly and you are already aware of who the survivors are (because they are telling the story), that it feels like you are cheated out of that punchline or payoff.
Overall, I enjoyed Ghost Stories quite a bit and would definitely recommend that you check it out. It's nice to finally see a wraparound in an anthology get treated like an important part of the movie instead of a structure thrown together to explain the why of it all to the audience. This won't be the scariest movie you'll see all year, but I think the horror crowd and even a more mainstream audience will appreciate this film.
Ghost Stories will be screened tonight at the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans. On Friday, April 20, it will play select cinemas and will also be available to rent on VOD from your cable provider.