Film Review: 'Ghost Stories' (2017): Sketchy Attempt to Revive the British Portmanteau Horror Film
The British film Ghost Stories from 2017 doesn't live up to the hype.
Ghost Stories (2017), written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson; starring Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and Alex Lawther.
This British “anthology” horror film was hyped as a revival of the great Amicus portmanteau films of the 60s and 70s, which all good horror fans should know and love intensely. While Ghost Stories is full of good ideas, they aren’t fully developed, and the segments are more like brief sketches rather than full stories. In addition, this is a film in which the “wraparound” story is far more important than the segments, which begs the question of why it has segments at all. Heck, the first installment of this pseudo-anthology doesn’t even get underway until more than fifteen minutes into the film.
The story starts with an autobiographical vignette about the main character’s austere Jewish upbringing, and then switches to the present. The main character, Professor Goodman, is played by Andy Nyman, who also co-wrote and co-directed this film. Goodman is a somewhat stereotypical Ashkenazi Jew, guilt-ridden and neurotic. He’s the host of a popular reality show called “Psychic Cheats” that debunks reports of psychic phenomena. We see him go about his show and some of these scenes are grungy and unpleasant. Then we get more grunge and unpleasantness as Goodman visits an elderly psychic debunker named Charles Cameron, who lives in a filthy, dilapidated house trailer. Cameron, who looks like death warmed over, hands Goodman files for three paranormal cases he couldn’t debunk. Goodman takes the files and agrees to investigate. Thus begins the first segment of the film.
It involves the story of Tony Mattews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchmen at an abandoned asylum. He tells Goodman the story of how he encountered something paranormal in the basement one night. Tony is shown investigating the strange noises in the dark basement and being stalked by the barely seen “something.” These scenes are well-done, but when “the something” finally appears, it’s a total WTF moment. Later, Goodman goes to visit Tony’s priest and has a discussion about faith and God, a scene that feels really out-of-place. There is no character development or explanation of what the basement ghoul actually was.
Second segment deals with an anxiety-ridden teenage kid named Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), who is obsessed with Satanism and the occult. Goodman visits the boy’s house and is shown to his room, the walls of which are covered with occult drawings and texts. Rifkind says he tracks the occult because he once ran over the Devil while driving in the woods at night. He tells the story in flashback and it’s mostly about the Devil coming after him for revenge after his car and cell phone break down in the woods. Again, the build-up is effective, but it doesn’t amount to much in the end. Goodman later goes to the same woods and has a creepy experience. The end.
Segment three is the most developed, but that is not saying much. Martin Freeman stars as Mike Priddle, an uppercrust professional man who has recently lost his wife in a difficult childbirth. He tells in flashback the story of the night she died after he went home to do paperwork, expecting her to be hours in labor. While he’s at home, he’s stalked by a poltergeist who focuses on the baby’s room. (This segment uses the same technique as the first and second ones: slow-burn stalking by a "something", then a jump scare. The third time this structure appears is tiring.) After the jump scare, Priddle realizes that his wife is dead and there’s something wrong with his child. Once finished with his tale, he unexpectedly commits suicide in front of Goodman.
Goodman then jumps in his car and drives out to see Charles Cameron; this is where things get really, really weird. I often like weird things, but in this case, the weirdness feels forced and self-consciously hip. It’s the kind of stuff that ages quickly and which will look very lame 10-20 years down the road. I also got tired of the stereotypically portrayed Jewish characters with their nervous ticks, anxieties, guilt complexes, and self-absorption. This is the kind of movie that Woody Allen might direct if he were into weird horror anthologies.
I’ll leave the final ending to anyone who wants to slog through this odd and disjointed film. Suffice to say, for me this film just doesn’t work very well. It had potential, but it was blown by pretentious Black Mirror-style hipsterism and a kind of Attention Deficit Disorder of the soul. I’d give it a 5.5/10. It's streaming on Hulu at the moment if you want to check it out.
For viewers who want to know what a quality British horror anthology really looks like, watch From Beyond the Grave or The House that Dripped Blood.
Note: Cross-posted from the "Movies & TV Shows" community.