Part of why horror remains one of the most successful and enduring genres to this day is because of how economical it can be. We can look at the rise of a studio like Blumhouse Productions to see the financial benefits of working in horror today, or we can look back in time at what remains the simplest, and most effective, form of horror: one person telling a story. There’s a thrill in the gossipy nature of someone letting you in on a dark, creepy tale, and the format requires the imagination to go wild. And even though a lot of horror stories one might remember hearing as a kid might not be especially original, it doesn’t matter. Most of the time, the excitement comes from how it’s told.
Writers/directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson know how compelling the act of storytelling can be. Their 2010 play Ghost Stories structured itself as a lecture, where a skeptical professor talks about three cases involving the paranormal he could never debunk. The play was a hit, starting in the UK before traveling around the world, with its marketing dedicated to making sure people don’t reveal a single part of the story (promos only showed footage of audiences flinching and screaming in their seats, an old tactic that never fails to work). Now, eight years later, Nyman and Dyson have adapted their play into a film, with the hopes it will be as successful on screen as it was on stage.
Nyman reprises his role in the play as Professor Goodman here, but his character (who provides the wraparound story in this anthology) gets a little more fleshed out. Instead of giving a lecture, he’s hosting a reality show called Psychic Cheats, and the three stories come to him from a fellow skeptic who resurfaces after mysteriously vanishing years ago. Goodman tracks down each subject of the three cases and hears their stories, but as time goes on it becomes apparent that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Revealing any more would spoil the film, but anyone familiar with the structure of these sorts of anthologies can make a good guess about where things might end up.
Horror fans should know going in that Ghost Stories has no intention of reinventing the wheel, instead doing a nostalgia-tinged version of old, omnibus horror films (it’s a structure that’s been used recently by shows like Black Mirror). This serviceable nature also applies to the scares themselves, which are familiar but pulled off with enough skill to make them effective. The first story involves a nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) wandering an abandoned building at night where he encounters a spirit. The next story has a teenager (Alex Lawther, entertaining as an anxious, terrified mess) getting terrorized by an evil force during a drive home, and the final tale finds a wealthy man (Martin Freeman, also having plenty of fun with his role) dealing with a malicious ghost threatening his pregnant wife.
All three segments rely on jump scares and horror cliches, but this is a film that’s fully aware and appreciative of these ... let’s say classical tactics. Nyman and Dyson also know that viewers have knowledge of the old bag of tricks they use here, and Ghost Stories devotes itself to compiling a list of horror’s greatest hits, albeit with an impressive level of skill (cinematographer Ole Birkeland makes nice use of well-composed long shots to set the mood). But Ghost Stories’ success as a stage play came from seeing these familiar scenes play out in a live setting, meaning their impact isn’t nearly as strong when translated back into the format they originally came from. At least Nyman and Dyson show a level of admiration and craftsmanship that makes their film get the job done, so to speak. Its builds tension well, with each story having at least one scare that lands, and the twist-filled final act leads to an ending that makes it hard not to smile at how obvious it is. Ghost Stories works because it knows something that’s a part of human nature: everyone’s a sucker for a scary story.