The setup for Ghost Stories is this: a rationalist skeptic and ghost-debunking TV show host named Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman) is given three paranormal incidents to investigate, under the premise that these three events are so un-debunkable that Professor Goodman will be forced to give up his materialist worldview and accept that the spiritual/paranormal world is real.
So Ghost Stories is a mini-anthology of three, well, ghost stories.
The first concerns a night shift security guard in what was a mental institution and is now a terrifying cement building that, as far as I could tell, has no need for a security guard. The second involves a young boy in an abusive family, and his encounter with an unnatural beast of some kind or another. The third story (starring Martin Freeman, the face of the marketing for Ghost Stories) relates the experience of a wealthy businessman awaiting the birth of his first child and the unseen something that inhabits the nursery.
There’s no need to go into more detail about these stories; suffice it to say that Ghost Stories does excellent work making each tale distinct, creepy, and effecting. The film’s creators provide the same framing device to each: the central participant in the horror story relates the events to Professor Goodman, intercutting flashbacks to the stories, jump cuts to the storytellers, and highlighting the impact of each on the mental state of Professor Goodman.
What makes Ghost Stories work, though, is not just the ghost stories, but the narrative conception that holds them together. Professor Goodman is a skeptic, unable to conceive of a world that might contain unexplainable phenomenon like ghosts. That position is understandable (I don’t believe in ghosts, either), and it might seem like this will lead the story to a much overdone conclusion: skeptic encounters unexplainable paranormal this-or-thattery, then becomes a believer.
But that’s not what’s happening in Ghost Stories. The writing/directing team of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (who adapted Ghost Stories from their stage play) have several satisfying tricks up their sleeve. There are small and quite chilling tricks that they’re playing on Professor Goodman. And there are big, bold tricks they’re playing on the audience. Whether the big finale pays off or not is up to the individual to decide (and might depend on what you think about the make up of this world). Either way, I admire the willingness of Dyson and Nyman to muddy the waters of rational materialism, only to reveal that there might actually be no water at all.
–Christopher Zumski Finke