Amicus Studios was the brainchild of marginally-talented screenwriter/horror enthusiast Milton Subotsky, and a fast-talking New York carnival barker named Max J. Rosenberg. Together, they made their mint on the portmanteau picture: slices of anthology weirdness that borrowed actors from Hammer Studios to produce chilling collections of modern morality tales. These anthologies usually consisted of a series of interconnected segments, with a wrap-around story that usually ended in a sick, ironic twist. Now, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson have updated that formula for a new age, adapting their stage play Ghost Stories for the screen, and making The Office's Martin Freeman - who's also had a few small roles in some MCU pictures of late - their own personal Peter Cushing.
"Be careful what you believe." This is the guiding mantra of Professor Goodman (Nyman) - a supernatural investigator whose skepticism far outweighs his capacity for empathy, who has spent his entire life debunking ghost hoaxes across the UK. After exposing another fraudulent psychic, Goodman is summoned to a seaside trailer park by his dying idol, Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne). But Cameron is no longer the cold-hearted denier of the paranormal Goodman knows and loves, demanding that this "arrogant" protégé take on the task of interviewing three subjects that unraveled the former TV star's disbelief. This Asylum-esque structure sets Ghost Stories' narrative wheels in motion, as the Professor's ensuing chats introduce the movie's trio of segmented spook shows.
Tony Matthews: Paul Whitehouse (The Death of Stalin) plays a night watchman looking after an abandoned hospital for "unwell women". Needless to say, a few of these feminine spirits give the security guard quite the fright.
Simon Rifkind: Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game) is a jittery young lad with multiple drawings on his bedroom walls of Satanic creatures. This obsession is birthed from a late-night drive, where the boy struck a particularly strange beast with his parents' car while returning home from a party.
Mark Priddle: Martin Freeman (The World's End) is a haughty businessman whose wife undergoes a rather traumatic bout of childbirth (in what is easily the best short of the bunch), as he’s simultaneously visited by a strange specter.
Nyman and Dyson are wise to keep the count on their shorts to three, avoiding the usual portmanteau pitfall of including one story too many. Sadly, while each segment is certainly creepy, and the overall visual aesthetic unified by Ole Bratt Birkeland's (Four Lions) shadowy, ominous cinematography, none are overly clever, relying on very simple jump scares and poltergeist imagery to keep audience members glued to their seats. Thankfully, the wrap-around - where we learn the rather sad, upsetting truth behind Goodman's dearth of faith - makes up for the others' somewhat lackluster characterizations by delivering a whole movie's worth of pathos via complex bookends (closing on a stinger that's somewhat predictable, but nonetheless gripping).
However, Ghost Stories' not so secret weapon is Freeman, who slips into the horror genre with rather astonishing ease. His calm, cool demeanor and smiling face barely hide a chilly undercurrent of malevolence. His casting also lends Nyman and Dyson's movie a level of star power that it would've otherwise lacked, though Freeman’s not here simply as a favor to friends or to collect a paycheck. The actor’s final few scenes are just as cheeky as they are chilling, as simple camera tilts or a strange facial expression transform the English comedic actor into a rather intimidating presence. Much like the movies it was obviously modeled after, Ghost Stories never really rises to anything more than a cute curiosity for horror fans, providing a frightful ninety-minute diversion that packs four British horror pictures into one.
Ghost Stories will continue to screen at SXSW Monday, March 12th, at the Alamo Lamar (11:55 PM), and Thursday, March 15th, also at the Alamo Lamar (12:30 PM).