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If you sneak up to someone in the dark and yell “Boo!” that doesn’t make you a master of horror. If you dress up as a half-rotted little girl and cry out a demonic “Daddy!” then you’re a bit closer. Ghost Stories traffics in both tropes, though the jump scares slightly outweigh the real scares and leave the film feeling like a cheat—at least part of the time. Admittedly, though, your pulse won’t know the difference.
First-time theatrical feature directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman adapted Ghost Stories from their stage play of the same name. Nyman also plays Professor Goodman, a paranormal investigator who believes that all of his case studies are pure hokum with real-world explanations. But then he’s summoned to the home of Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a now-elderly paranormal debunker who challenges Goodman to explain the goings-on in three cases because he can’t and has had his know-it-all arrogance taken down several pegs. Easy peasy, thinks the junior dick.
Goodman then interviews a night watchman, a teenage boy, and a businessman to learn their stories and what they think happened to them. (“The brain sees what it wants to see,” Cameron used to say, which Goodman adapted as his own credo.) Tony (Paul Whitehouse), the guard, tells the investigator that his wife is deceased and he has a daughter with locked-in syndrome. He hasn’t visited her in five years. The film then flashes back to Tony’s paranormal experience, which involves a very, very dark warehouse, an impossibly sunny song from the 1950s playing on the radio, and … dolls. Yeah, it’s as cliche as spooky little kids. But that’s because, after all the fake-outs, it works.
Case 2 is about Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther). Lawther is terrifically creepy as the teen, though he’s not even what’s freaky about the story. His case involves another heavily used setup in horror films, the stalled car in a deserted area in the wee hours of the morning. This segment of the film gets a little more terrifying, as it dials down the jumps and amps up the shudder-inducing imagery. (Rarely have two people’s backs been so spine-tingling.) But it also earns a welcome laugh: “Staaaayyyyy,” says the thing that goes bump in the night. “Fuck that!” Simon says before running. The lad may be scared, but he’s also smart.
The final chapter, along with a coda and a Shyamalan-worthy twist, is when things get trippy. Martin Freeman plays Mike Priddle, a businessman who tells Goodman about a conception gone wrong. His story involves a poltergeist but also a shocking suicide, some whoa-man visuals, and, depending on your interpretation, Satan. Without giving too much away, Goodman has something in common with all three cases, and—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—they rattle him to his very core. Which leaves Ghost Stories scoring a solid “OK” in terms of both its originality and its scares. The storylines can feel awfully familiar and sometimes, you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes after you jump out of your seat.
Ghost Stories opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.