You've probably heard of the VHS movies. This recent trilogy of horror anthologies showcased the rough-hewn aesthetic we call "found footage." Though energetic and occasionally refreshing, an army of filmmakers wove the VHS stories together with a nonsensical wraparound narrative. Ultimately, they were a scattershot attempt to update what films like Creepshow had perfected decades ago. But Ghost Stories, a new release from IFC, doesn't just modernize the horror anthology — it's undoubtedly one of the best horror films of the year.
Ghost Stories comes from The UK's Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen) and Andy Nyman, who originally wrote it as a stage play. After debuting in 2010, Ghost Stories eventually ran in London's West End for over a year. This film adaptation, again written and directed by Dyson and Nyman, fully realizes the spooky potential of the play. Both the stage and screen versions follow the same story: Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career out of debunking the supernatural. But when he gets the chance to meet his aging idol Charles Cameron, Goodman receives three unsolved cases that will challenge his deeply-rooted skepticism. And they'll scare the hell out of him, too.
Opening with faux-8mm footage of Goodman's bar mitzvah, Ghost Stories immediately shirks convention. By avoiding common themes like Catholic guilt or loss of Christian faith, Ghost Stories makes the professor's story one of ostracization and resentment. Unlike classics like Creepshow, this is a horror anthology where the wraparound narrative is the primary focus. Goodman's religious background is the impetus of it all, and that makes a sturdier framework for the segments devoted to Cameron's unsolved cases.
The three cases are familiar territory — a lonely spirit, a demonic presence, a poltergeist — but each carries a distinct style. The second story is a skillful Sam Raimi pastiche, complete with swooping Sam-O-Cam and massive score cues that evoke Christopher Young's music from Drag Me to Hell. Everything else in the sound mix is pretty subdued. This movie isn't the shrieking, assaultive horror of The Conjuring and its ilk. Ghost Stories is contemplative and sad, but still very frightening. It's a morality tale that lands somewhere between Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Black Mirror.
And though it excels in drama, the film lets a bit of wind out of its sails in the third act. I won't tell you exactly how because it'll spoil something you should see for yourself. Instead, I'll say the film makes an excellent argument for allowing people the reality of their own experiences, no matter how outlandish or strange they sound. But when the film questions the reality of the audience's experience with the film, it undermines the value of its best dramatic argument.
But even after that misstep, Ghost Stories still brings colorful, lush cinematography, a fun sense of classicism and a hefty dramatic punch. You should watch it in the dark. Savor Martin Freeman's co-starring role. Revel in its ability to balance horror with compelling drama. When a daylight dialogue scene is just as engaging as being stuck in a dark basement with a ghost, you know a movie is doing something right.
Ghost Stories is currently in a limited theatrical release and is now available on-demand through cable TV providers.