Here’s a pet peeve about the acting one typically sees in horror movies.
Few performers take things far enough to give us a sense of what it would be like to confront the truly unexplainable. An encounter with some supernatural threat, one might think, would induce shaking, gasping, gulping, pants-wetting terror. Eyes wide, almost immobilized by shock, jaw-agape, Danny-in-“The Shining,” the works.
The British import “Ghost Stories” is one of the few films since “Blair Witch” to truly get it. A collection of chilling run-ins with ghosts and maybe the supernatural are remembered by the people whose psyches were gutted by the experience. It’s a quiet, hair-raising thriller that fills one with dread and makes you appreciate how destructive just such event would be in a person’s life, even if the rest of us don’t believe them, especially if we don’t believe them.
Andy Nyman plays a professional TV debunker of the supernatural, exposing fraudulent psychics, explaining away phenomena “experienced” by those who often turn out to have manufactured it for personal gain or fame.
Professor Goodman’s “Psychic Cheats” career began with his father’s fanatical (Jewish) religious beliefs “which destroyed our family.” Life experiences that followed solidified Goodman’s conviction that “We have to be very careful in what we believe” because “The brain sees what it wants to see.”
His idol, the one who pointed him in the direction his life would take, was a Scottish TV presenter/debunker named Cameron, a man who disappeared years ago, never to be found.
Until a tape arrives on Goodman’s desk, a hoarse whisper asking to see him, directing him to a tatty travel trailer (caravan) on the Scottish coast. That’s where he meets the gnomish recluse, Cameron.
“I just presumed you were dead,” Goodman offers.
“‘Ow d’ye knooo that I’m NOT?”
Goodman gushes over the legend who coined the phrase “existential terror,” but Cameron insults him back, for his “arrogance,” his “disrespect” for the people who say they’ve experienced something unexplainable.
He shoves a battered binder in Goodman’s hands, three cases he himself could never explain. “The supernatural…is REAL. I need you to tell me I’m wrong!”
Co-writers/directors Jeremy Dyson and Nyman, working from their play, rely more on atmosphere and mood than startling effects to get their frights. It’s the dark dread of that first case, a former night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) at an abandoned women’s mental hospital (why such a place needs a watchman is anybody’s guess), that raises the hair on the back of your neck.
Glimpses of a patient in yellow through the gathering gloom, skittering, scampering noises, low moans and pounding at the door of the watchman’s guard office might be enough. Anything beyond that, a taste of the terror of “The Ring” and its imitators, is icy icing on the cake.
Whitehouse plays this Tony Matthews as a man absolutely broken by this “event,” devastated and embittered by personal loss, a devastation compounded by what he says he’s seen. Goodman’s interrogation with the man’s credulous priest (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) does nothing to convince him that what Matthews described really happened.
But he and we are shaken to our bones by Case #2, Simon Rifkin. Alex Lawther of “The Imitation Game” and “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” is a quivering pile of tics, winces and paranoid nerves. He’s a very young man who hit something with the family car on a lonely forest road late one night, and now he’s holed up in an over-heated basement room, fortified against the chill he feels almost constantly, staring at every convincing, affirming Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell and the Devil he’s been able to print out from the Internet and paste on the walls.
He weeps. He stammers. He can barely get through his account of what he saw, the car breaking down and the confrontation with “evil” he is dead certain he had.
This is “Blair Witch/Insidious” level terror and Lawther’s performance of it becomes a new yardstick to measure horror genre acting against.
The third “case,” involving a high finance whiz (Martin Freeman), he and his wife’s desperate attempts to have a baby and the terrors that come with that, is the least convincing, even as it leads Goodman into examining the life of debunking he’s pursued and his own darker motives.
The film Nyman and Dyson have cooked up has healthy dollops of foreshadowing, and even a rare “flash forward” (as opposed to flashback) when we’re teased with terrors to come.
The settings –day and night — are uniformly spooky and forlorn, and Nyman ably suggests a doubter who, like John Cusack in “1408,” comes to doubt his doubting.
Freeman has fun with the showiest role, glibly observing that “You’re supposed to feel safe in your own home,” even as he beats back the madness that must be gripping him to accept seeing what he’s seen, experiencing what he say he’s experienced.
Few horror movies hold up under close-examination and dissection. But “Ghost Stories” has the goods to occasionally creep out even the most jaded gene viewer, something each year’s cinematic bumper crop of “Boo” rarely achieves.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, frightening images, profanity
Cast: Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Alex Lawther, Paul Whitehouse
Credits:Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman, based on their play. An IFC Midnight release.
Running time: 1:38