Sometimes what makes or breaks a horror anthology is its frame. Does the story tying together the ghastly tales elegantly connect the narratives, or is it unfocused and distracting? To avoid the framing conundrum altogether, a fair number of anthologies have relied upon a host — think the Cryptkeeper or Rod Serling — who simply introduces each segment but maintains his own character throughout, ensuring some sort of continuity. Much easier.
Ghost Stories, co-directed and written by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, ingeniously strings together three shorts with the story of a skeptic who professionally debunks paranormal claims. Equal parts spooky and cheeky, this film nails its black humor and finds a bizarre but satisfying conclusion to manage all the loose ends.
We enter Ghost Stories via a television show, starring Nyman as Professor Goodman, the debunker, whom we see catch a psychic shyster in the act, Cheaters-style. Then Goodman addresses the TV cameras to explain that his hero, Dr. Charles Cameron, was a notorious skeptic who unmasked charlatans until he one day disappeared, leaving his car and possessions behind. Goodman tells us he’s gotten a sudden invite from the mysterious Cameron to come and visit. Soon, he’s presented with three cases that Cameron could never solve, ones so shocking they rattled him and made him a believer. It’s up to Goodman to prove him wrong.
The cases are quite simple: A nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) is haunted by an asylum’s specters; a businessman (Martin Freeman) is visited by a ghoulish version of his wife; a boy (Alex Lawther) is terrorized by the demon he hit with his car. But a too-complex plot has been known to doom a horror short; the best tend to be straightforward, sometimes with a twist, and always with a couple of scares. Humor is nice, too, and Ghost Stories has plenty. When Goodman visits the nightwatchman, the two dance around the idea of payment until the latter squeezes the professor for 50 quid.
Lawther, who starred in the darkly hilarious series The End of the F***ing World and a deeply disturbing episode of Black Mirror, embodies a jittery, wide-eyed teen stuck in an impossible situation — playing cat-and-mouse with an actual devil in the woods with only his dad’s rolled-up old atlas as a weapon. And Freeman exudes maximum smarm as an alpha corporate guy who’d rather yadda-yadda through the details of his frightening encounter than spill his feelings to a TV show host. Ultimately, it’s the acting that sells this anthology. These oddball characters walk Goodman and the audience through the frightening nights that changed their lives, and in the shortest amount of time present themselves as full, multidimensional people.
When the film goes berserk at the end — and I mean “berserk” in an “Oh shit, is this actually an experimental theater piece?” way — Nyman and Dyson demonstrate that a framing story needn’t just be utilitarian. Done right, it’s a chance to probe each individual story more deeply.