‘Ghost Stories’: At this atmospheric horror film, the fun is in the guessing

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Martin Freeman plays a father-to-be in “Ghost Stories.” | IFC MIDNIGHT

The best thing about “Ghost Stories” — and there are a lot of good things — is the confidence of its directors.

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, whose film is based on their play, are not afraid to take the story (stories) into what seem like sure storytelling traps, only to emerge mostly unscathed on the strength of an overall commitment to both horror films and the spinning of a good yarn. Like the best movies of the genre, “Ghost Stories” offers a kind of perverse fun in its scares.

About those scares: They’re of the old-school variety, mostly creepy and atmospheric, not quick-cut BAM! ghoul-in-a-mirror shortcuts.

Also no one gets disemboweled, which is nice. And rare these days.

There’s a framing device of sorts: Nyman plays Philip Goodman, a professor who hosts a British TV show called “Psychic Cheats,” in which he, on camera, debunks fake physics and mediums and such, and delights just a little too much in the doing of it. His inspiration was Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a debunker he saw on TV as a child who provided his inspiration, and disappeared long ago.

Then one day, a tape shows up. Cameron asks him to visit, and Goodman does. Cameron is dying, and instead of the happy welcome Goodman was hoping for, his mentor berates him, saying Goodman doesn’t respect people who have had unexplainable experiences. He throws Goodman a package with files on three cases he couldn’t debunk and challenges him to look into them and get back to him.

Thus begin the ghost stories.

First Goodman visits a down-on-his-luck, troubled man (Paul Whitehouse) who worked as a night watchman at an abandoned women’s mental hospital. The man relates an experience he had, involving sketchy flashlights and glimpses of a little girl in a yellow dress. To say that he is haunted is to understate the case considerably. His life is essentially ruined.

Next, Goodman goes to see an addled young man named Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther, terrific). His goofy grin badly masks abject fear. He is horrified. He lives in a house seemingly filled with spirits, but he doesn’t even bother with that (you will). He stays mostly in a basement room he has heated to uncomfortable temperatures, with pictures of demons on the walls.

Again, this is a frame within the frame. He relates his tale to Goodman: Driving home from a party one night, he hits something on the road. It appears to be a demon of some sort, a goat-like man or a man-like goat or something. And it is not dead.

Lastly, Goodman winds up in a field with Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, the biggest name here by far). He’s a former stockbroker who hit it big. He and his wife tried to get pregnant and finally did, though the poltergeists who suddenly seem to inhabit their gorgeous spread right before she’s about to give birth suggest problems. He never believed in evil, Priddle says, until that night …

Goodman takes his findings back to Cameron, and however weird things got before, they get weirder. Here is where you might feel especially inclined to roll your eyes, at least at the outset. But what may seem like a cheap plot device instead becomes a crucial element linking everything together.

The element that’s too often missing from horror is one that Dyson and Nyman relish: fun. Not laughing or making jokes, though there is some humor. The fun of being scared, of wondering what that balky flashlight is going to reveal, of who those people standing silently at the sink are, of who or what is moving all the furniture in the empty room upstairs.Honestly, the answers aren’t that important. It’s the questions that haunt you.


IFC Midnight presents a film written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. No MPAA rating. Running time: 97 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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