It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.
Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.
As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.