Rating: 2.5 stars
“Ghost Stories” appears, at first glance, to be a “Trilogy of Terror”-style anthology of three somewhat middling poltergeist tales, all framed within the context of an investigation by a professional debunker of such hauntings. But round about Act Three, this small British film with a cast of mostly nobodies — made somewhat grander by the appearance of Martin Freeman (“Black Panther”) — turns into something a bit more difficult to describe. It’s still a horror movie, all right, but the nature of the fright is less supernatural, and more solid.
The story centers on Philip Goodman, an academic and host of the TV show “Psychic Cheats” (played by Andy Nyman, who, along with first-time feature director Jeremy Dyson, also co-wrote and co-directed the film). The son of a censorious and puritanical Jewish father, Philip has grown up skeptical of all things spiritual and now, using modern technology, makes his living exposing fraudulent mentalists, phony faith healers and other charlatans. When Charles Cameron, an elderly fellow debunker (Leonard Byrne) and hero of Philip’s, contacts him with a request to look into three cases, Philip obliges.
Each case, according to Charles, has caused the old man to reconsider his lifelong disbelief in the paranormal. “I need you to tell me I’m wrong,” he begs Philip.
Subsequently, our hero meets with and interviews, in three discrete installments: an alcoholic ex-night watchman in a former mental institution (Paul Whitehouse); a jumpy, impressionable teen (Alex Lawther); and a wealthy, traumatized widower (Freeman). Each has a tale to tell, which unspools in flashback, about an encounter with what, in each of the three subjects’ telling, is a restless spirit of the dead (or, in the boy’s case, an otherworldly entity of some demonic sort).
These ghost stories, if that’s what they are, aren’t terribly original, or even especially scary — at least, not by the standards of the genre. And it isn’t even clear how Philip might begin to go about debunking what are, in essence, campfire yarns. Although he does actually visit a site or two, Philip uses no electromagnetic frequency meter, no thermographic camera or any of the other paraphernalia of the modern ghostbuster. His presence seems merely an excuse for us to listen to three rather ho-hum tales from what may or may not be the crypt.
But then, in the middle of the last anecdote, things take a turn for the weird, in ways that I can’t, without spoilers, elaborate on. In the space of a few minutes, the entire premise on which “Ghost Stories” seems to have been built, up to that point, begins to crumble. At first, it’s disorienting, even confusing, as if a rug had been pulled out from under you. But then Dyson and Nyman take the story to a place that is fresh, if flawed in its execution.
This much can be said: The ghosts that are referenced in the title aren’t the ectoplasmic remains of the dead. Rather, they allude to the persistence of memory, and the way that the things we, the living, have done — or not done — all too often come back to haunt us.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence and frightening images, strong language and anti-Semitism. 97 minutes.