Directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
by Judson Cade Pedigo
Spoiler Alert: This is a spoiler warning concerning a spoiler that won’t be spoiled but if you are the kind of person that doesn’t even want to know about the possibility of anything spoiler-worthy being spoiled then I am sorry that I just spoiled the fact that there is something contained in the movie discussed worth spoiling that I won’t spoil any details of but sometimes just knowing that there is something to spoil can pre-spoil the whole viewing experience for someone averse to going into a movie with even a hint of pre-show spoilers, just brace yourselves that the following review will spoil the fact that there is a potential big spoiler to address but will only address said spoiler in the least spoilery way possible in order to minimize the spoil effect. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.
I love a good ghost story, always have, always will. Books like Scary Stories to tell in the Dark and Tales for the Midnight Hour seemed to be on permanent loan from my school library when I was a kid. I will watch and re-watch any movie with Amityville in the title including the ones about haunted lamps, clocks, and mirrors, especially the ones about haunted lamps, clocks, and mirrors. I’ve scared myself silly staying up late reading scary stories on the internet where like, a kid is sleeping and the parent goes to check on the kid and they’re all like “Hey, what’s my phone doing here?” and they check the phone and it’s all like, pictures of the sleeping kid but taken from…..up in the air?!?! So scary. I love a good ghost story which is why I was so excited to see Ghost Stories (it’s plural which means we are getting multiple ghost stories!) Sadly the movie doesn’t live up to the promise of the title. It spends most of the run-time setting the tone but holds its punches, choosing to save it all up for one big jab in the final act which seems to come out of nowhere, feeling more like a sucker-punch to the audience than a grand finale. I left feeling haunted, not by the movie I saw, but the movie that could have been.
The story involves Professor Goodman (played by Andy Nyman who also co-directed) professional skeptic and host of “Psychic Cheats” a reality show that specializes in debunking the paranormal. We see the Professor in action right away, revealing to a packed crowd that the Psychic regaling them with his “abilities” has in fact been fed information through an earpiece. The scene freezes on a woman, who thought she had been speaking with her late son that died from leukemia, reacting to the revelation by breaking down and sobbing hysterically. The scene works well by establishing right away who this guy is, a man willing to uncover the truth no matter the cost to the people he is actually trying to help. After this brief introduction, the plot kicks into high gear when Goodman is contacted by his childhood hero Charles Cameron, a television skeptic who the professor has seemingly modeled his whole career after. Thing is, Cameron disappeared years earlier under mysterious circumstances and has suddenly appeared mysteriously into the good professor’s life presenting him with three mysterious cases. (editor’s note: That a lot of mystery!) Three unsolvable cases that presumably broke the will of the great Charles Cameron. Three unsolvable scary cases of the utmost scare-atude. Wow! I am all-in at this point. It is a great premise and the setup really knocks it out of the park. There’s decrepit Cameron, living like some insane old squatter in a beat up trailer, chiding Professor Goodman for his arrogance and then begging him to investigate the cases that have haunted him all these years, hoping to finally get some rest. At this point I couldn’t be happier. Big-time skeptic investigating three supernatural cases that have potentially driven the previous investigator mad? Sign me up for this one and all of its sequels. One of the draws for me here was that our lead was coming at this investigation from a skeptical point of view. After years of seeing the saint like depiction of the Warrens from the Conjuring series, I was looking forward to seeing the counter-balance to that depicted on-screen. As, noted skeptic, Joe Nickell has been quoted saying “There are no haunted houses, only haunted people.” Oh sure, I figured there would eventually be all kinds of supernatural shenanigans, this is a movie after all, but the skeptic in these types of films tends to be the antagonist rather than the lead so I couldn’t wait to see how this dynamic played out. Unfortunately once the Professor begins his investigation into the titular ghost stories, that’s where my problems with the movie began.
The first tale is of a night watchman who encounters something strange that don’t look good, late into his shift. I’ll admit, at this point in my movie watching life, it’s going to take a lot to scare me. I’m always open to the possibility of being scared and while my heart will race and I may jump, I never really get scared in that way that stays with me. What I’m usually looking for then is an answer to this question, “Would I watch this again?” During that first watch, the movie holds all the cards but will it hold up to repeat viewings? Once you subtract all the false scares and dead ends, is there anything there or are you left with an hour and a half of people stumbling around in the dark with flashlights? Like I said before, I was primed to like this movie. I was ready to sit back and let it take me where it wanted. It started slow, really building the tension (which is fine, I’m no stranger to the slow burn. FYI I’ve sat through Goodbye, Dragon Inn, twice) and just when the suspense is so taut you think the film itself might snap, it’s over. Cut back to Professor Goodman chatting away with a priest about the specifics of the case. It was pretty jarring. There was no ending, no closure, leaving me rather unsatisfied. It’s like if you were at a restaurant and, after the appetizer, the waiter handed you the check. Well, maybe that wouldn’t work for an anthology like this. I guess all the stories would be the appetizers leading to the finale, which is the main course. Maybe it would be like if you had a pie and only got to nibble some of the crust before someone took the pie away and gave you an apple. Okay, forget food analogies. If your movie is called Ghost Stories I expect a complete ghost story, not one that stops right when it’s getting good! The other thing is if you’re billing these stories in the narrative as basically the scariest things ever you better deliver the scariest things ever! The first tale was okay, but offered nothing we haven’t seen in any of the last five Blumhouse pictures. Okay, I figured it would pick up with the second story but then they do the exact same thing! Goodman goes to interview the source of the second case, the story starts, tension is built, the mood is set, and just when you are expecting some kind of a pay-off, that’s all folks! “Calm down,” you say, “Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that is the scariest thing of all.” I get that but I also want a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Each segment feels like a brief vignette rather than a fully-realized story. In most movies involving hauntings, you have time to get to know the people being haunted so you have that connection when things go awry. That may be the problem here, we’re introduced to these characters so quickly we just don’t have enough time to care.
Have you ever seen The Acid House? It’s an anthology flick based on the book by Irvine Welsh with three loosely connected stories. The first involves a young man who meets God in a pub and is turned into a housefly for his troubles, the second is a more straightforward drama about a dysfunctional couple and the third involves a hooligan who inexplicably body swaps with a baby ala Vice Versa. The first is entertaining, the second is fairly conventional, and the third is the most satisfying because it goes all-in on its ridiculous premise. What does Acid House have to do with Ghost Stories? Absolutely nothing, but I caught myself thinking about it several times and I’ve always said that if the movie you’re watching makes you think of other movies, something is not working. The thing is that, unlike The Acid House, this anthology constantly seems to be holding itself back. Thank god Martin Freeman shows up in the last tale to liven things up a bit. Unfortunately, even he can’t save his story from being fairly formulaic and by the book. It is necessary, however, as it is the stepping stone that leads us directly to THE ENDING. I put it all in caps because it is one of THOSE endings. I won’t go into details but stop reading now if you are the kind of person that gets nervous even knowing that there is something worth spoiling about the ending of a movie. Yes, this movie has one of those THE ENDING endings. You know the kind, where you are supposed to forget everything you think you thought you knew because now shit is going to get real. You can either go with the twist or plant your feet right then and there and go “I ain’t buyin’ it”. Here, I felt it was a bit of a cheat because it seemed like it introduced a rather large piece of information really late in the game that seemed to come out of nowhere. Sure there were bits and pieces peppered throughout that all add up after the big reveal but still. I’ll go along with a twist more times than not because even if it falls flat at least it might give you something you haven’t seen before. In this case, I felt cheated, not by the twist but because the movie started getting good, really good. I stopped thinking about The Acid House and immediately started paying attention. In the last thirty minutes the movie woke up and so did I. Why did it wait so long? As it attempts to pull the rug out from under us it finally delivers on that scary story promise from the beginning of the movie. Things get unnerving, uneasy, and very uncomfortable to watch in parts. Most of all it got really visually interesting in a way that it previously hadn’t with its retread of various haunted house clichés. Suddenly what I was watching became some unholy union of In the Mouth of Madness mixed with 2001: A Space Odyssey and a dash of Gummo, pilling on the insanity until it was hard to tell which way was up. Whatever it was, it was certainly interesting. Which is more than I can say for the rest of the movie. Why did it wait until the last 30 minutes to really get going? The whole thing moved in such fits and starts that by the time it actually got moving I had already given up. Take any movie with THE ENDING, like Memento, Identity, or that one with the kid who sees dead people and they encourage the viewer to go back and look for the man behind the curtain pulling the strings but here I just don’t know if it would be worth going back for another tour. Love or hate the choices made in THE ENDING, at least it was a bold decision instead of the collection of ghostly tropes we got from the preceding 70 minutes. They do kind of fudge things just a bit at the very end by throwing in the old Wizard of Oz roll call routine (“And you were there, and you were there!”) which kind of cheapens the effect of the mind trip you just went through, making the very end feel like an episode of Tales From the Crypt without a closing pun by the Crypt Keeper. In the end, THE ENDING, was the only thing that really worked for me, I just wish getting there wasn’t such a chore.