REVIEW: Ghost Stories

WTF?!

A skeptic who devotes his life to exposing psychics and the supernatural is recruited to investigate three cases where a trio of men are exposed to unexplainable paranormal activity.

Do you ever walk out of a cinema on some days and just think to yourself, “what the hell did I just watch?”. I know I do, on the rare occasion. You know that sense of confusion and curiosity you can get from experiencing a fine bit of art, leading to a bout of ‘WTF, WTF, WTF’ in the car ride on the way home? Well today I felt that very feeling because I decided to spend my day watching a little ol’ film called Ghost Stories.

Based off the stage play of the same name, directors, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, bring what was their original stage play to the big screen in the spooky, creepy and downright chilling Ghost Stories. Going into this film, I had not watched a trailer, seen many posters or even read the synopsis for it, leaving me almost entirely in the dark before watching the film. I was aware the feature had been building large buzz, especially in Britain, but I was unaware why such buzz had been built. Ghost Stories turned out to be a film that completely broke all expectations I had built up, because honestly, I was just expecting a couple of creepy ghost stories… that’s all.

Ghost Stories may be a film that is sold on three bone-chilling, rather typical and predictable (sometimes over dramatic) horror tales that you would typically find a couple of fourteen year olds telling over a bonfire with marshmallows or even Abed reciting to the folks over an episode of Community (SIX SEASONS AND A MOVIE!), but the film is much more than that. I cannot say I typically loved this film or would call it a standout of the calendar year, but it is a film that dares to be more and provides a sense of horror which is rather matchless whilst opposing others within the genre.

Not to give too much away, because this film is best experienced without prior knowledge (so turn away now, if you dare), but Ghost Stories is a fascinating subject of a narrative as it enables itself the ability to ‘evolve’. The film begins like any other horror film would, with a skeptic having his beliefs challenged and the concept of ghosts seeping into reality. Ghost Stories begins as any other ‘ambiguously’ supernatural horror film would with your garden-variety jump scares and possible demonic presences, but then it changes. I really do not want to be specific (and I’ll try not to), but the best way I can describe the film is that there is a point, a little after midway in, where Ghost Stories moves from supernatural horror to existential, psychological horror. Ghost Stories plays a game with its audience and, at the end of the day, almost quite daringly checkmates us all.

Ghost Stories understands what we, as conscious beings, truly find terrifying – regret, anguish, self-loathing, disappointment and, in particular, guilt. The things that we fear go beyond just the casual, spooky bump in the night, but instead deep psychological terrors that never leave our psyche. We are prisoners to the mistakes of our past and the nightmares we inflict on others. You could almost coin ‘life’ in Ghost Stories as a state of Limbo-like Purgatory – an assessment of the good and the bad, and whether you’re willing to forgive yourself when concerning the sins of your past and the guilt of inflicting said sins. To really dive into the grim and gritty of it all, Ghost Stories sells us on the idea that yes, ghosts are horrifying creatures, easily depicted as demonic visuals for cinema scares, but its what the ghosts represent that really makes our bones chill and our hearts shrivel up. Ghosts are imprints of the past and, in whatever form they take, they are reminders of the sadness and the evil in our wrongdoings and misadventures. Ghosts are creepy reminders and visualisations of true human terrors, like regret, anguish, self-loathing, disappointment and, of course, guilt. And like a ghost, what does guilt do to a person? Nothing, but force you to spiral into madness as it haunts you and begins to eat away at you, as you, a now regretful, anguished, self-loathing and disappointed human being remains stuck in a Limbo – stuck in Purgatory.

I cannot say the least that Ghost Stories is a heavily detailed, multi-engineered film that bakes in its themes, motifs and little plot clues from the beginning, only to have them later unravel in the most surrealist of ways. The film is almost like the Halloween equivalent of A Christmas Carol (which I dare say would make Jack Skeleton proud), but also feels like it borrows ideas of a Martin McDonagh script. There is so much things that go on in this film that it warrants a re-watch almost immediately to attain a full experience. Again though, I did not entirely love this film and although I would call it impressive and extremely well-done, there are elements that I cannot surpass as clear flaws.

Not to say Ghost Stories is an overly flawed movie, I mean, this script has obviously been tirelessly worked on to the point that every crevice has been fully investigated. It’s just that I have some nitpicks I need to address, like say a few fourth wall breaks at the beginning of the film I was not much in favour of. I may have never seen the stage production but, I assume in it the lead also speaks to the audience in an introductory manner. However, when translated to film I do not entirely think this is necessary. Ghost Stories does so well at visual storytelling that this opening fourth wall break feels rather expositional. And yes, the protagonist is filming a show and the fourth wall break is meant to be like the lead is addressing his camera crew, but since this fourth wall break never occurs again as the cameras also never change to provide an adjustment in shot composition, the whole fourth wall break just feels rather off… but wow, do I sound like a snobby critique. Ok, just for that, I will talk more positives before I return to some dislikes. We cool with that? We’re cool with that.

hero_Ghost-stories-2018
(Altitude Film Sales 2018)

The acting on all accounts was impressive, whether assertive like Martin Freeman, frazzled like Alex Lawther or relaxed like Paul Whitehouse – everybody played their part rather well (and convincingly…). The short horror sketches were genuinely spooky with the filmmakers employing atmosphere over just disturbing bangs and crashes to really sell the horrifying elements. Originally I would have said some of the three tales went a bit overboard at points, in the way they appeared slightly over-the-top. And although the ending gave solid explanation why the stories were a bit too extraordinary at points, I think elements should have been more better grounded so that the horror of the film’s finale really left a bigger, more appropriate over-the-top bang.

There is a quote that many critics and audiences have being seemingly basing their ideas of this film around; that quote being “the mind sees what it wants to see”. I do indeed believe that one quote to be an appropriate and satisfying summary of what Ghost Stories is all about, however there is another quote, spoken by Martin Freeman’s character, towards the end of Ghost Stories to which I feel really placed together the pieces of this cinematic puzzle perfectly. The quote went, “it’s funny, isn’t it? How it’s always the last key that unlocks everything”. Not only is the quote reflective of how the plot in Ghost Stories so effectively thickens, but also how storytelling in general can leave such lasting impact on a viewer. As Charlie Kaufman summarised in Adaptation, you have to wow the general audience at the end as once you do that, you have an almost assured hit. So that brings me to my final criticism: did Ghost Stories effectively wow me at the end?

… I mean, kinda.

The whole final act of Ghost Stories was incredible and changed the game of the film so deeply that what was real became surreal and what was confirmed became ambiguous. I could not have been happier with how this film unfolded and showed itself for what it truly was and was truly saying… but, the final few minutes just did not capture my attention all to well. It’s almost as if the ending was too good to be true, that once the final five minutes rolled around, the audience was left realising, “oh, it was too good to be true”.

Now, I have no idea how this film should have ended more effectively, because, to be honest, I am rather stumped on this one. Yet the final few minutes just felt rather lacklustre and slightly predictable, especially when following the surreal events that unfolded immediately before it. I will say the film’s ending shot was outstanding and possibly one of the best ending shots to a film I have seen in recent memory, but the whole scene that came before said shot just felt a bit off and, also, very stage-like, as if the final few minutes also reverted to reenacting the blocking of the stage play rather than developing the cinematic aspects.

Although, what I have come to realise with most of my negatives towards Ghost Stories is that they are essentially nitpicks more-or-less. What I didn’t like about this movie, overall, seemingly were more personal dislikes in how bits and pieces of the film were executed. Maybe to most, Ghost Stories is a perfect film and I would not argue with that statement. In spite of that fact though, some directorial choices and a bit of a poor ending just had Ghost Stories fall ever-so slightly below ‘Lost Art’ status for me.

At the end of the day though, I would highly recommend Ghost Stories if you ever find the chance to see it. The film is a film that dares, and when a film manages to do that, and challenges its audience whilst still being entertaining, you have yourself something of a success. Now, I would very much like to see the play…

Ghost Stories is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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