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Ghost Stories

Shout Factory // Unrated // September 4, 2018
List Price: $19.85 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 9, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

It's always intriguing to see how filmmakers find new ways to seamlessly tie together individual stories into an anthology, especially in the horror genre. An adjoining story certainly isn't required for this subgenre; the segments found in Three Extremes and Black Sabbath have little to no connective tissue between ‘em, but the overarching mood and craftsmanship makes them potent projects. Seeing how screenwriters concoct framing devices and intersect short stories into a complete picture does add something to the experience, though, and there's no hard-‘n-fast rule about how much or how little seamlessness works best under the circumstances, as it mostly depends on the impact of the segments themselves. The somewhat literally titled Ghost Stories take that seamlessness a step further, to a degree that it nearly camouflages its anthology structure, but that desire for a unified story actually manages to weaken the integrity of the creepy, yet mundane supernatural yarns and what ties ‘em together.

Writer/director Andy Nyman also stars as the lead character, Phillip, a renowned skeptic of the supernatural who specializes in unmasking fraudulent communicators with the deceased. Phillip discovers that one of his idols in the field of debunkers, Charles Cameron, didn't actually die in a car accident many years ago, and he wishes to speak with Phillip. What he learned from the old, reclusive and ailing skeptic is that he now second-guesses his entire body of work, and it's because of a trio of cases he wasn't able to solve that have haunted him for years. Cameron asks Phillip to pursue these three cases and see if he can discover the answers that he wasn't able to find, leading him to conduct interviews with the individuals whom were impacted by inexplicable acts of the supernatural: a night watchman, a teenager, and a financial professional. After they recall their experiences, Phillip must put the pieces together and resolve whether they were hoaxes or genuine displays of the other-worldly.

Ghost Stories originated as a theatrical play nearly a decade ago, and while the stage-oriented structure of the production can still be gleaned how things are set up, writer/director Nyman has done a reputable job at camouflaging it with cinematic flow. Even though title cards that point out the beginning of each segment run the risk of undercutting those objectives, the grounded temperament of Phillip's interviews and how his character "progresses" throughout each one give the film enough forward momentum to embrace as a cohesive experience. Andy Nyman's pragmatic, slightly cheeky performance as the skeptical investigator certainly helps: he isn't an ostentatious or righteous truth-seeker, instead just a not-so-likable guy who courteously prods with questions and furls his brow whenever he runs into something unexplainable in the discovery period. Whether he's enough of an anchor to serve as the film's "protagonist" is another matter, as his participation turns from passive decoding of the truth to someone more actively involved.

The conceit itself behind Ghost Stories makes this a strange and questionable piece of horror cinema, though. As Phillip's pursuits carry onward, we're guided into what's supposedly considered the cream of the crop in terms of unsolvable, near-irrefutably supernatural mysteries that couldn't be deciphered by his mentor, the cases that tested his mettle and ultimately came out victorious. In other words, there's a decent amount of "hype" leading into the ghostly tales, but the effectiveness of the stories themselves don't match up to their significance in the film's plot. Loud noises going bump in an abandoned mental asylum, a creepy body that vanishes after getting hit with a car, even a literal ghost under a sheet produce familiar and only mildly successful scares, aided along by the believably frightful performances of those involved; Martin Freeman turns in an especially strong portrayal of a wealthy father-to-be getting spooked out in his empty upscale home. The scares lack impact, and it's largely because none of the scenarios seem any more or less noteworthy or evasive of regular explanations than other cases.

That absence of noteworthiness in the cases themselves is by design, frustrating as that may be, as Ghost Stories follows a path toward a major twist in perception of what Philip has actually been observing and researching in his travels. Andy Nyman unquestionably delivers something that's surreal and unexpected, but it also struggles to come together in a fashion that assures it's necessary to completely undo what the audience thinks happened beforehand. Frankly, it feels like a Shyamalan-like shock just for the sake of being a shock, and the crucial revelation comes close enough to the mechanics of other mindbending thrillers of the past two decades, especially from the mid-2000s, that it arrives as a comatose duplication. Had writer/director Nyman approached Ghost Stories as more of a genuine anthology of scary stories -- making the cases truly distinct instead of deliberately in the realm of being explained away -- then perhaps the nightmarish descent at the end might've held more impact, instead of suffering from identity issues.

Video and Audio:

To its credit, Ghost Stories does utilize some nifty camera angles and better-than-expected makeup work in its rendering of the film's few ghouls, while also utilizing some pretty eerie "practical" locations throughout. The 2.35:1-framed digital cinematography may not strike a strong chord, but there's enough subtle inventiveness and attention to detail to make the 1080p AVC transfer from Shout Factory compelling to watch. Harsh textures of a dilapidated building, demonic sketches, and the eerie expanses of a cold contemporary mansion provide flashes of pleasing high-definition clarity, but perhaps more importance lies in the capability of the contrast levels due to the frequency of shadowy scenes, which have slightly elevated but largely convincing black levels and detail responsiveness within. Closeups are frequent, though, especially since about half of the film hovers around conversations led by Philip's investigations, and that's where the steady-handed fineness of the disc's clarity comes into focus, in bristly facial hair and weatherworn skin surfaces. For what it strives to do, it looks great.

As you can probably expect, the tenser paranormal scenes in the film will possess stronger lower-end oomph and some expansion across the surround stage, to which the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track capably telegraphs both strength and subtlety where needed. It's an extremely quiet movie at most points, and subtle sound effects can dictate the mood, from rustling in bars and bedrooms to the crunchy sounds of walking in the breezy outdoors. Surround-channel responsiveness is fine but unremarkable, possessing just enough clarity and midrange punch to lock in the tense atmosphere where needed. Louder scenes -- in an asylum, amid a car collision, general jump-scare punches -- possess enough distortion-free vigor that immerses those watching. The carefully-orchestrated moments of scoring are sharp and well-balanced against everything else, and stillness in the environment comes without any buzz or anything.

Special Features:

Only a Trailer (2:02, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

Unremarkable poltergeists and a superfluous twist keep Ghost Stories from scaring up a more vigorous cinematic experience, hampered by its own objectives. The performances from all involved are credible and the directorial craftsmanship from Andy Nyman is reputable, but the inherent ambitions of his project are what keep his supernatural pursuits from fully waking up. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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