Ghost Stories is a good film. I mean that quite literally. It is a well-crafted movie with a gripping pace, good visuals and a fantastic cast that also happens to be scary. In a genre that seems to always be trying to overcompensate that’s rare enough to seem novel.
Based on the stage play by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman and starring the latter, Ghost Stories follows uber-skeptic Professor Phillip Goodman as he tries to fulfill the last wishes of his hero in the debunking field, Charles Cameron (think Michael Parkinson in Ghostwatch). Cameron has recanted in his old age and sends Goodman on a quest to investigate three cases he claims proves that the supernatural world exists. Goodman complies, and comes face to face with ghosts, devils and poltergeists, each incident which fractures his world.
[film-1] That’s a really oversimplified way to put the film, but it’s a difficult movie to describe without giving away some very important plot points that will definitely leave an audience gasping for air. I can say that Ghost Stories definitely leaves open the question of whether there is anything beyond the material world, or whether we are already the ghosts we fear.
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Let’s talk the bleeding meat aspects. Are you going to get good scares if you attend the screening at Alamo Drafthouse? Most definitely. It is, appropriately, a ghost story, and the horror comes from a post-Insidious school of filmmaking. There are a lot of Slenderman-style jumps, good corner-of-the-eye creeps, an absolutely masterful soundscape that is sometimes more terrifying than the visuals, a few good monsters, and a really nice homage to In the Mouth of Madness near the end. That last one is no accident, I’m sure. Both Madness and Ghost Stories borrow heavily from Lovecraftian tropes.
If scares are your sole decider on a good horror flick, then you’ll be appeased. That’s really just the sizzle on the steak, though. Where Ghost Stories makes its mark is in its commentary regarding belief and how powerful it is. “The mind sees what it wants to see” is a common refrain in the film, but it’s not just a clever line. Ghost Stories asks us to contemplate why? Why would the human mind create a spectral little girl, a demon in the woods or an evil presence in a nursery? What’s the purpose?
[location-1] Goodman is a character who opens the film explaining that his strict religious upbringing is what killed his concept of larger belief and sent him into a career as a man who assaults psychics for fraud on stage. He literally tries to create meaning in his life by tearing loose the connections others may have to a world he doesn’t believe in. Without getting into a moral debate regarding mentalists or faith itself, Goodman ultimately has to face the terrible truth in the idea that what we fear is what we fear, and that its “realness” is really quite unimportant to its effect (pay very close attention to the scene in the church).
Ghost Stories is a film about existential dread that also offers a nice cabinet of horrors to get the heart pumping along the way. In places it can be a little awkward, and the way it ties up everything so neatly at the end is almost neurotic in its thoroughness, but it is extremely good. It scared me on more levels than I knew I had.
Ghost Stories opens at Alamo Drafthouse on Friday, May 4 for a limited run. Check Drafthouse.com for times.