That creeping sensation someoneor somethinghas joined your presumed solitary company. An icy draft when none should logically be there. An enveloping darkness obscuring the unknown. The sinking suspicion of being followed, stalked, haunted. In "Ghost Stories," these shuddersome feelings of dread are conjured early on and sustained for the duration. The cinematic equivalent of a wraith wrapping its long, spindly, sharp-clawed fingers around one's nerve endings, the film elicits copious fearful apprehension while daring to conceptually reinvent the portmanteau form. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, making their striking feature writing-directing debuts, rush out of the proverbial gate as if they are seasoned masters of suspense, taking their audience through a gripping, goose-pimply triptych of tales before mind-bendingly revealing a deeper, darker, more existential purpose in whole.
The three stories in question are presented in the form of case files given to supernatural-debunking television host Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) by one of his childhood mentors, the decades-missing, now-elderly paranormal investigator Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne). As Goodman travels around England, interviewing his subjects, their harrowing brushes with the otherworldly come into focus. In the first, grieving night watchman Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse) is accosted by a nefarious force at the derelict women's asylum where he works. The middle segment centers on terrified teenager Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), whose late-night drive home on a desolate country road takes a ghastly turn when he hits a demonic creature with his car. The last account revolves around Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a wealthy financier preyed upon in his unborn baby's nursery while awaiting word on his wife's delivery. Goodman, a diehard skeptic, is ready to report to Charles Cameron that concrete proof is nonexistent in these cases. Look closer, though. There's altogether more going on behind the velvet curtain, and everything Goodman thought he knew may never be the same again.
"Ghost Stories," adapted from Dyson and Nyman's own stage play of the same name, defies expectations by shattering conventions of the classic horror-anthology style. By themselves, the trio of yarns aren't narratively groundbreaking, but they are splendidly conceived and uniformly hair-raising. Where the picture takes a leap beyond the familiar is in the way it treats the bookending scenes and connective tissue as crucial pieces to a grander puzzle. Cinematic storytelling can whisk a person to surprising, inventive, rule-breaking places the likes of which most filmmakers leave thoroughly untapped. Not here. With this on-a-limb ingenuity comes a rush of thoughtful thematic ruminations, indelibly envisionedabout mortality, loss, regret, and the unshakable experiences which haunt us through our lives. The sharp details brought to each scene, many only revealing their intent in retrospect, are ambitiously and impressively integrated into the picture's macabre fabric.
"Ghost Stories" has a way of portending the unimaginable in all its shrinking, shivering, indomitable glory. Tension thunders from moment to moment. A sense of discovery is one of its lingering pleasures as the script eye-openingly wades into metaphoric, non-linear, even experimental waters. Performances are dramatically formidable, with writer-director Andy Nyman taking on triple duty as our onscreen guide, Phillip Goodman, and Alex Lawther (2018's "Freak Show
") taken through raw, unquenchably terrified paces as unlicensed driver Simon Rifkind. Shadowy, chill-bitten, overcast U.K. locales are evocatively lensed by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland; one can practically smell the salt from the East Yorkshire coast of Hornsea and feel the unknown presences lurking within the Salts Mill and lonesome rural roads. A film readymade for multiple viewings and penetrating analyses, "Ghost Stories" is a rattling scare show with a brainsobering yet frightfully fun, startlingly unpredictable and then, more unexpectedly still, something greater.