J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Ghost Stories: Scary Stuff, with Martin Freeman

Ghostly yarns are meant to be told, person to person, as indeed happens here. In this case, they are prompted by a skeptic’s investigation (it still counts) that is rooted in a dare (which makes it even better). “The brain sees what it wants to see” is the motto of our intrepid paranormal investigator, but all bets are off during Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s pseudo-anthology film, Ghost Stories (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Prof. Phillip Goodman fancies himself a British Amazing Randi, but despite his TV show, he is not nearly as famous (or respected). His role model actually happens to be Charles Cameron, a famous TV debunker from the 1970s, who has disappeared from public sight in recent years. At first, Goodman is thrilled when the mysterious old man reaches out to him, but the camper-dwelling Cameron is surprisingly hostile when he pays a visit. Openly contemptuous of the logical materialism he and Goodman offered people in place of supernatural mystery, Cameron gives his follower three case files that you could say shook his lack of faith in the beyond. He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them, thereby launching the film’s anthology structure, except there is rather a bit more to the wrap-around segments, as we will eventually learn.

The initial “proper” story focuses on an emotionally-broken night watchman, who reports being haunted on the job by a little girl. The second relates a pre-teen’s terrifying vehicular mishap along a remote stretch of road (a bit like Bryan Bertino’s The Monster, but more demonic), while the final tale relates the very personal and tragic hauntings experienced by City investment banker Mike Priddle. However, things are not precisely as they seem, but telling would be a shame.

Ghost Stories is based on Dyson & Nyman’s long-running play, which must have featured some inventive staging, judging from the film version. Even American horror fans who learn its secrets from the film would probably enjoy seeing it unfold on the boards. In large measure, this is because the framing narrative is so inventive—so much so, it eventually takes precedence over the constituent stories.

Co-writer-co-director Nyman is absolutely terrific as Prof. Goodman. He is a real character, with real flaws—and not just a device to introduce the next haunting. Martin Freeman similarly makes Priddle seem very real, but he also helps facilitate some big surprises (again telling would be telling). Yet, perhaps the rawest, most wrenching work comes from Paul Whitehouse (much better known in the UK), who really kills it as Tony Matthews, the literally and figuratively haunted night guard.

To put Ghost Stories into context, many critics and fans have invoked the name of Amicus, the Hammer-like studio that specialized in anthologies (like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which featured Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and British jazz musician Tubby Hayes). However, you can also taste some of the flavoring of the decidedly existential British horror exemplified by Ben Wheatley and Gareth Tunley, but that rather makes sense, since producers Robin Gutch and Claire Jones performed like duties on films such as Kill List, Berberian Sound Studio, A Field in England, and Sightseers.

Arguably, you can see two traditions of British horror coming together in Ghost Stories, which is really cool. There is also real acting and stuff going on. The results are deliciously sly and sinister. Very highly recommended for horror fans, Ghost Stories opens this Friday (4/20) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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