Ghost Stories (2018) – A Modern Horror Classic?
Ghost Stories (2018) – A Modern Horror Classic?
It always feels a bit weird to say that I love horror films. When I confess my adoration for the genre to friends and family (hoping to have a big chat about which Paranormal Activity is the best one) I’m usually met with “ew, why do you want to scare yourself?!” or, “I’d rather watch a film that’s actually good. Well, firstly, you might laugh at a comedy or ooh and ah at a rom-com, but what else is really going to get your heart racing like a horror film? For me, they’re the only films that elicit a real, physical response. And I find that stupidly fun. As for the second point, thinking that there are no good horror films is just naïve. I’d heard that 2018’s Ghost Stories, directed by/starring Andy Nyman, co-creator of some of Derren Brown’s most famous shows, was a good example of an artful horror film, so naturally I had to give it a go.
2018 was also the year that my favourite horror film, Hereditary, was released. But Ghost Stories is very different to Ari Aster’s suspenseful masterpiece. It’s far more tongue-in-cheek, and decidedly British in its writing, especially by the third act when Martin Freeman makes an appearance. It’s essentially an anthology film, meaning that it’s better thought of as a collection of stories than a single dominating narrative. There is a central storyline (psychology professor Phillip Goodman sets out to debunk three supposedly inexplicable supernatural phenomena) but to me it felt like this story only existed to give an excuse for the three ‘ghost stories’ that give the film its name. At just around 90 minutes, Ghost Stories is pretty short for a film with multiple storylines, and this meant that that none of the three stories really got fleshed out. Just as you start to warm to a character, their thread ends, leaving you with questions that never reach a satisfying resolution.
Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the aforementioned psychology professor was more of a compelling character. Played by director Andy Nyman, Phillip Goodman is a sceptic of ghost stories. He believes that “the brain sees what it wants to see”; he makes it his life’s work to disprove any and all supposed supernatural experiences. This is displayed in the opening scene, during which Goodman interrupts a live mystic show to tell the audience that the mystic is being fed information through an earpiece, and is not in fact contacting the souls of dead relatives, etc. As an aside, this scene takes on an interesting meaning when considering Nyman’s work with Derren Brown.
The plot’s conceit is that Goodman doesn’t realise that, sure, ghost stories and supernatural phenomena may not be strictly ‘real’, but they can be a great help to people in rationalising that which they can’t understand. This concept is the film’s saving grace. On the surface, the three stories of the anthology appear to just be spooky cases of hauntings, but in fact they serve a purpose beyond simply attempting to scare the viewer: they speak about the characters’ interiority and explore how they are using ghostly experiences to rationalise a unique trauma/worry that each of them holds.
On paper, it’s a great foundation for a film. But, unfortunately, Ghost Stories is just poorly executed. Goodman’s character doesn’t really progress beyond ‘science man who doesn’t believe in ghosts’ until the final 20 minutes of the film – it’s impossible to talk about those last 20 minutes without spoilers, but let’s just say that the ending is supremely rushed, with plot points about race and ableism feeling tacked on without proper exploration. The film lacks focus, with the epilogue relying on narrative hand-holding; that is to say that the films decides to tell rather than show, with Martin Freeman’s character essentially explaining the ideas expressed in my previous paragraph. I’ll also say that Ghost Stories heavily relies short term jump-scares to keep the audience on edge rather than any real long-term tension building. I don’t have a huge issue with this as I actually like jump-scares in moderation (controversial, I know), but when they’re thrown in every few minutes during a spooky sequence, the film starts to feel repetitive and loses its grip over the viewer’s psyche.
In short, I was disappointed by Ghost Stories. In my introduction to this review I used the term “artful”, and though I respect Ghost Stories for its cinematography and (sometimes) restrained use of music/SFX, I think calling the film artful was largely wishful thinking on my part. At its best, horror can be disturbingly thought-provoking as a vessel to explore the interiorities of its characters (Hereditary is an excellent example of this), and at its worst, horror should at least be scary. Ghost Stories did to an extent meet both of these expectations, but in ways that caused it to fall short of being a really interesting and/or terrifying film.