Dir. Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman
Ugh. I am really conflicted about this movie. Ghost Stories does a lot of little things right, and does one very big thing wrong, and that makes it tricky to review. I’m honestly still not sure if I liked it or not. I don’t actually know how this review is going to end, because I’m hoping I’ll have made up my mind by the time I wrap up. Worse yet, I can’t talk about the part I didn’t like without spoiling the movie, so if you’ve not yet seen Ghost Stories, perhaps go watch it, and then come back to tell me how wildly offbase I am. It’s out on VOD now, go on.
There, gone and watched it? Okay. Let’s talk about the good parts first. This movie is based on a stage play co-written by the star and co-director, Andy Nyman. His production partner, Jeremy Dyson, remains behind the camera, but his presence is felt, I think, in the obvious, easy relationship Nyman has with the material and the camera. He does a wonderful job portraying the tormented Professor Goodman, and feels completely natural and genuine in the role.
The same can be said for the narrative flow of the movie. This script feels absolutely polished, because, well, it is. This is well-honed material, delivered with the self-assurance of a team that have refined their story until there is almost no fat left on it. There are a number of genuinely tense moments, and the movie got Jessica to yell and jump at least twice that I remember. Paul Whitehouse’s segment as the night watchman was my favorite overall – the pacing and set-up were perfect, with a great ambiance. While the ending of this story oversold the apparition a little, the lead-up to Whitehouse’s visitation was hands down the most intense section of the movie.
While I liked the other two stories a bit less, they were still very well constructed. Alex Lawther did a very convincing turn as a young man on the edge of madness, and the shot of his parents, motionless in the kitchen, was wonderfully eerie. I found his visitation more comical than spooky, but his acting carried the day. Martin Freeman’s segment was simultaneously my least favorite and then for a brief time my favorite – for one brief moment, when they introduced Barty during the, uh, coda to Freeman’s segment, I had hope that this movie was not going where I thought it was. Let’s just get it out of the way and get to the spoiler.
So, the ending. The “It was all a dream” internal fantasies of a comatose man. The biggest cop out a horror movie can pull, the ultimate betrayal of the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Worst of all, it wasn’t even done in an original way. When Nyman’s character saw his ghostly reflection in the car window, I blurted out, “They better not fuckin’ ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ us.”But they did! They fuckin’ slipped us the Jacob’s Ladder ending, and I talked myself out of it when I felt it in my gut. What a clod I am. What a maroon!
The trouble with this ending, as the reference to the excellent 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder implies, is that we’ve seen this gimmick before. We’ve been here, with a better movie. It’s not unreasonable to want to pull a Jacob’s Ladder, because that was a damn good movie! So good, in fact, that it’s been copied a few times before. Like by Vanilla Sky in 2001. Or Identity in 2003. Or hell, as recently as 2015 in The Abandoned, a movie that is for all intents and purposes the exact same story as this.
The “it was all a dream” ending is a poorly received narrative device not despite the times it has been used effectively (and of the above movies, the only ones I acknowledge as effective are Jacob’s Ladder and Vanilla Sky, but that’s another article altogether), but because it’s been done. To death.
So. For all the great, tension-filled moments Ghost Stories provides, for all the excellently composed shots and beats, can the blunder of the ending cancel them all out? I say…no. Although the ending got me big mad, the journey to get there was well worth the time invested. Nyman and Dyson turned out a tense, affecting horror movie with some great set pieces and scares, in a well-polished vehicle of a script. I just wish the ending of the film had resolved into something worthy of what had come before.
Rating: Three conflicted skeletons