It seems like every time two or three horror anthology films are released within the same year, it becomes fodder for a “revival,” when in actuality, it has remained a staple of the horror genre for over 50 years. Whether it’s Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in 1962’s Tales of Terror, the sumptuous visuals of 1964’s Kwaidan, or my own personal yardstick on the creepshow omnibus, 1975’s Karen Black vehicle Trilogy of Terror (that tribal doll still shows up in my dreams on occasion), the format suits the stories: short and succinct, campfire-told tales that get in and get out before they wear out their bloody welcome. Based on a popular and long-running play of the same name from the minds of Brits Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, Ghost Stories continues the tradition, but unfortunately offers up the same old recipe, with a soupçon of variation to make those jump-scares not feel like day-old bread.
Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) has spent his life debunking the supernatural, as we are introduced to him via his reality TV show, exposing a psychic onstage who is being fed information on his audience via a headset, an early sign that the film will be treading well-worn territory. Goodman is contacted by an elder statesman of the cause, a once-popular, now reclusive skeptic, who gives him the files of three cases that were never solved. Framework sturdily in place, the prof heads off to investigate these unsolved mysteries.
The trio of tales serve up a pretty pedestrian array of horror cliches: creepy, abandoned asylums where the power constantly goes out; a car breakdown in the dark, secluded woods where beasts may dwell; a poltergeist driving a man and his pregnant wife to extreme measures. An homage (well, that’s one word for it) to classic horror films, at least the framing device of Goodman’s quest offers up some mildly interesting variations, especially in the end, where the film attempts to draw all the various ribbons together to make a nice little bow. Except that bow isn’t really that nice, it’s hackneyed and unoriginal and you can anticipate the arrival of the plot twist in much the same way that you anticipate the arrival of a nice shock when sticking a fork into an outlet. “The brain sees what it wants to see,” and “everything is exactly as it seems,” are choral refrains our main character hears throughout his odyssey which inevitably takes a tragic turn. I have to give Nyman and Dyson props, though, because any film that utilizes the successful inclusion of Bobby Pickett’s 1962 hit “Monster Mash” scores points with me. But Ghost Stories, while trying to spin these old-fashioned tales, can best be described as hearing the same story for the millionth time by a best friend: somewhat comforting, but mostly tedious.
For an interview with Dyson and Nyman, read "From Stage to Scream," March 9.
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