Ghost Stories – Film Review and Analysis
Well thought out
Not what people might expect
Some areas don't seem to have been explained or alluded to.
Not what people might expect
A Quick none spoliery review
First up, for those of you who don’t want spoilers and just want to know if the film is good or not, here’s a quick round up for you :
Celebrity paranormalist and skeptic, Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), is sent to investigate three incidents of supernatural sightings. Including a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) working in an old women’s refuge, a teenager (Alex Lawther) whose car breaks down in the middle of a forest and a business man(Martin Freeman) who is awaiting the birth of his child.
All the stories are linked by Goodman and as they move forward his scepticism is put to the test culminating in an unusual and unexpected, if emotional, finale. Acting is solid, It’s beautifully and atmospherically shot, Scary as hell, psychological, thought provoking and has an ending that I can only say will be divisive for a lot of people. If you are looking for a mindless scarefest then Ghost Stories isn’t the film for you but if, like me, you like a bit of mental sparing with your sudden jumps, then you’ll be in for a treat.
Not enough? Want to delve deeper then follow me.. but be warned, there be spoilers ahead!
Analysis and Spoiler filed commentary
Leaving the Cinema, myself and my Girlfriend, Louise, weren’t exactly sure what we had just watched.
“it was really good until the ending.. it was just a bit weird and silly.” She turns to me and says
Now I’m not sure if it was silly, but it definitely was weird and to be honest I could understand why she felt that way. For 3 quarters of the film you had a normal British horror film, replete with atmosphere, mind tricks, jump scares and a smidgen of humour. Then, suddenly, and when you feel you are going to get closure, the tone and mood changes and you find yourself on this slippery slope to an ending that you’re not overly ready for, and in my girlfriends case one she didn’t want.
It was either a genius way to end the film or a huge mistake and I wasn’t sure, as I left, what I thought. It was only after, while talking it through with Louise and going over all the parts in my head that things started to click together and clarity prevailed. But to explain we need to start at the end.
Ghost Stories ends with Professor Goodman going back to the trailer of Charles Cameron (the reason for his Journey in the first place) to tell him, despite what he has seen and been told, that its all bull shit and can be explained by mental and family traumas (an important concept that is overlooked due to the context of the film thus far). We as the audience know this is him lying to himself, he’s actually seen things himself, he’s scared, he knows it.. there is going to be a payoff soon; a payoff that’s starts straight away but goes in a direction few expect.
Cameron starts to put his finger into his eye and then we soon realise it’s a disguise and he’s wearing a mask. Low and behold we are confronted with Mike Priddle (Freeman) who killed himself in the last scene. The Prof is so taken back by this that he asks the camera to cut and stop filming, to which Priddle asks, “where do you think you are? ” ( I am not sure if this was intentional by the film makers or just a mistake that was kept in, but either way it works)
From this point on the entire dynamic of the film changes and Priddle leads us / Goodman through his own story. A story of a young bullied kid who lets a mentally handicapped boy “Kojak” die after taking a fit in a prank that goes badly wrong and Goodman’s younger self does nothing to stop or help. Finally, after the moral of the film is seemingly revealed Goodman is assailed by a ghoulish Kojak and dragged down a narrowing corridor to a hospital bed, wherein we soon realise that this entire thing has been in his mind the whole time and he has Locked in Syndrome, after a failed suicide attempt…..
I have no doubt this will be the reaction for a lot of people because it would, on the face of things and without any other thought into the matter, feel like a pretty lame and frustrating way to end a pretty scary film. But it is this very ending that, in my mind, makes Ghost Stories smart; but only after connecting the dots.
Let me connect some of them for you:
- First thing you have to know is that Andy Nyman, who plays Prof Goodman, co-wrote the play of the same name, as well as adapting it for film. On top of this what some people don’t know about Nyman is that he writes a lot of the stage shows for Derren Brown, who is in the film briefly as “Betty” .
This in itself is a revelation and starts to make you think about the film in a different way. Derren Brown after all is the epitome of skepticism and mind play / tricks and Nyman writing his stage shows basically impregnates the concept of Ghost Stories with another meaning; one that was staring us in the face from the very start.
- Even before the film was released, mind tricks were being played and the title of the film was spelt wrong, with not many people noticing. It was spelt ‘Ghost Storeis’ and had the tag line of “The Brain sees what it wants to see” the I and E being placed the wrong way round was a simple way to prove the premise. Most people, in their minds eye, will just read it as it is meant to be; as I did.
- At the start of the film we are introduced to Goodman, his religious upbringing and a statement that his fathers religion ruined his family’s life. Trauma that is reflected upon briefly but not shown in great detail and a plot devise to explain his beliefs and profession.
- Mental trauma is a point referenced numerous times. Paul Whitehouse’s character with the loss of his daughter to Locked in syndrome feels guilty and is traumatised by the event, Alex Lawthers Character is a young man, with learning difficulties and over bearing, unsympathetic parents and Martin Freemans character works in a stressful job and loses his wife in child birth. All explanations, as Goodman tells Cameron, to why they might be seeing things and in Goodman’s case, his own trauma being the reason he is seeing things.
- From the start Goodman is seeing things, the boys messing around on beach with the dead bird are the bullies from the end, the hooded figure and the bullies are in the picture in the house from the second story. The hooded figure follows Goodman when he is with Priddle in last Story and even the name of the pub he meets Paul White House’s character in ’10 Numbers’ is the name of the game that ended in the death of Kojak. Goodman’s trauma followed him throughout.
- The stories themselves are very abrupt and in each case when the story teller comes face to face with the subject of their story, it ends and cuts to the next scene, with little or no explanation on how they escaped and what happened next. I read a review stating this as a flaw, making it look unfinished, but in context to what was trying to be portrayed I feel the abruptness and lack of elaboration perfectly explains how Ghost Stories work and effect the mind.
- The Shot of the window is the view from his hospital bed, that he can see with help from the mirror; the doll on the chair is the doll from the Third Story and represents the manikin girl in Story 1; the 3 story tellers are 2 doctors and a janitor in the hospital; the Scottish professor (Cameron) is just a composite of Priddle’s( the doctors version) old university professor; Priddle’s choice of killing himself with a shotgun in the last story is how he (as the doctor) tells Rifkind how he’d have killed himself instead of gassing himself in a car like Goodman. The fact Priddle can’t get Rifkind name right, which is what happens when he phones the AA in the second story; Priddle shining the light into Goodman’s eye, the bird hitting the window is the dead bird the bullies play with and also is represented by the Birth the ghost girl carries in the first story, the radio and the janitors response to it is the same as it was in the first story and of course the fact that the first creature puts its finger in Paul Whitehouse’s mouth and the Ghoulish Kojak does the same to Goodman represent the tubes in his mouth.
- Goodman seeing something behind Cameron in the caravan park, him thinking he saw and heard someone on the top floor of Rifkinds house, the spectral face in the woman’s refuge all tie in with you mind playing tricks on you, or as has been mentioned a few times within different Derren Brown documentaries, the mind tries to make sense of the unexplainable things with familiarity; hence why you see things in clouds and at a first glance might see a face or something similar in an object you aren’t sure about.
- The constant referral to Keys, locks and doors. About people not listening and about being trapped in a situation you can’t escape from all tie in with Locked in Syndrome and are percolated throughout the film.
So the film telegraphs its intention and direction throughout but it is the end that ties it all together and is a necessity to get the entire point across; a point aptly made when Priddle, trying to open a gun locker, in the middle of nowhere, states “It’s funny, isn’t it? How it’s always the last key that unlocks everything.”
As it is, everything that happens is a fabrication of Goodman’s mind, formed by Religious, mental and physical trauma, combined with every day memories. Like a dream, or in this case a nightmare, they can be lucid, abrupt, jolting you from one place to another and tie in random things that you have heard and seen in your day to day life, therefore the tag line of “the Brain sees what it wants to see” is very much apt and if you think about it, how often are your dreams coherent and not kinda messed up?
Ghost Stories therefore isn’t really a Horror, the façade is there and in that guise people are sucked in, but really its an allegory for the human mind and condition. Sure if you are wanting just a fright with the generic horror tropes of Evil is defeated (but maybe not wink wink), or evil wins and no one is safe, then you won’t enjoy this and I can kinda understand that, sometimes you just want a mindless scare but if you accept it for what it is, and understand where it is coming from not only do you get a fright but would will be rewarded with an even scarier prospect; you own mind.
In the end, what is more terrifying than what you conjure in your own minds eye and being helpless to prevent it.
Definitely worth the watch, but with an open mind.