‘Ghost Stories’ SXSW Review: Three very British hauntings

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It’s pretty rare that I leave a movie wondering if I could see the stage show, but Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s cinematic adaptation of their popular West End play Ghost Stories feels built to thrill a live audience, even though it translates quite well to the silver screen. You’d never know at the start that it was meant to be a play: The scope is wild enough and set in so many different locations that it’s a wonder that they were able to put the thing on stage in the first place. It’s a broad and entertaining little film, strongly rooted in its central character and his specific fears, and it’s bound to delight any number of horror fans looking for intelligently plotted genre thrills.

An anthology film that reveals itself to be something way more, Ghost Stories tells the story of Professor Goodman (Nyman), a professional skeptic who has a television show debunking all sorts of phenomena, including ruining a psychic’s act at the start of the film and devastating an audience member. He’s then contacted by an old mentor of his, believed to be long dead, who has come to hate his life’s work. The mentor instructs him to investigate three hauntings that he couldn’t solve: A night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) and his experience with a ghost in an asylum, a teenager (Alex Lawther) headed home from a party happened to run over a demon, and a businessman who experiences phenomena at home while his wife is in labor at a hospital. These cases eventually reveal themselves to be a bit more than meets the eye, and Goodman is revealed to be less than a passive observer than he might actually think.

Dyson, best known as a member of the League of Gentleman, and Nyman, an actor and mentalist, are well-studied students of the genre, are quite skilled at emulating their favorite filmmakers, and this anthology film is able to string together tonally disparate segments into a cohesive and engaging whole. There are ample jump scares, especially in Whitehouse’s segment at that asylum (and I was sitting so close to the screen that I jumped with it every time), but the film finds its footing soon after and manages to create an actual atmosphere. Freeman’s segment is probably the best, with its dispassionate remove from its main character and its more playful ghost, and it seems to be the segment that the directors decided to deploy all of the tricks in their aesthetic bag. Freeman and Whitehouse are the standouts from the ensemble, and I wish I could talk more here about Freeman’s performance, but I’d be dipping into spoiler territory.

I found myself apathetically watching Ghost Stories for a big chunk of the runtime, but the film’s third act revelations revealed an entirely different film lying beneath the surface of what seemed like a typically rote time at the theater. Whatever this is, it wasn’t put together in a slapdash fashion, and I’d honestly like to see it a second time to pick up on more of the pieces that Dyson and Nyman have left for us in anticipation of their ending. It’s a fun exploration of a guilty conscience not unlike Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, only this time, nobody’s going to be buying a big ol’ fat bird and eating it with the Cratchits.

Ghost Stories hits theaters on April 20. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo via IFC Midnight.