Ghost Stories (2017)

Ghost Stories is a British film by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, adapted from their successful stage play. We watched it on Amazon Prime.

I had high hopes for Ghost Stories, and actually put off watching it (I was saving it for a treat).

It had everything I could hope for. Not just one but three spooky stories. Top British talent, including Hollywood darling Martin Freeman (he’ll always be Dr John Watson to me) and comedy veteran Paul Whitehouse. It’s Certified Fresh™ on Rotten Tomatoes. What more could I ask for?

Well! Like someone getting sat on by a sumo wrestler, you can probably see a big “but” coming. Reader… I was disappointed.

The film is well made and does a lot of stuff superbly. The protagonist is a sceptic, Professor Goodman, who goes around debunking claims of the paranormal. At the start of the film, he gets chance to meet his hero, TV presenter Charles Cameron. Cameron was active in the Seventies and then vanished. Goodman is disappointed to learn that he’s not only destitute but no longer even a sceptic. Apparently, he found three cases he couldn’t debunk. He challenges Goodman to follow in his footsteps and explain them if he can—or, like him, become a convert to the supernatural.

This is the framing narrative for the anthology segments. Goodman meets three people and hears three spooky tales. I don’t want to spoil them, so I’ll only say this: none is very original, but all are very effective. The acting, direction, lighting and sound do a really first-rate job, wringing fresh scares from old ideas.

Of the three segments, my favourite was the second. Goodman finds the traumatised survivor at home, and his domestic situation is surreal and nail-bitingly tense. It’s like a scene from a nightmare where something is wrong and you can’t say what. As our second storyteller, Alex Lawther gives a masterclass in acting. His performance is the new gold standard for supernatural shell-shock, and definitely worth the price of a rental.

And yet, and yet… we come at last to that enormous posterior. I wanted the film to tie it all together, and explain what was, for me, the film’s core mystery: why did Cameron lose faith in rational explanations?

From his and Goodman’s point of view, the stories are just stories. In the absence of proof, a sceptic will always prefer hoaxes and mental illness (both of which definitely exist) to ghosts. So, what’s the twist? Where’s the terrible, incontrovertible proof? I was banking on it being good.

By design, various scenes made me uneasy—but during the film I felt a different kind of unease. I had a nagging premonition that the ending would let me down. It isn’t for me to spoil the plot, but I can at least tell you that it did.

Does that mean I can’t recommend Ghost Stories? No. I can certainly recommend it. I am doing. I’m doing it in a grumpy voice and scowling a bit, but it’s happening. After all: if you come for nothing else, come for Alex Lawther’s bravura performance.

To be fair, a lot of the film is gripping, and I felt scared for long periods. Only the framing narrative left me cold, and that’s just one of four stories here. Everyone’s different and maybe you’ll like it. I hope so, because the film deserves fans. The final act just didn’t come together for me.

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