'Ghost Stories' Updates British Anthology Horror with Three Unsolved Ghost Cases

Horror anthologies are tough. Even the very best, like George Romero and Stephen King's Creepshow, have a few duds in the bunch. But Ghost Stories doesn't. It's three ghost "cases" are either effective, inventive or, at least, sensible enough to bail when the concept starts losing steam.

Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman) is a professional debunker of the most grating variety. Nothing is more effective in establishing Goodman's character than the dismissive way he interviews haunting victims, as if he thinks they can't see his subdued smirks and eyerolls. After meeting with his hero, an older debunker, presumed dead for years, Goodman investigates three ghost stories that can't be explained away.

It's a great framing device, certainly much better than some of Ghost Stories' inspirations, like Amicus Productions' 1972 anthology Asylum, in which a doctor must interview patients in an asylum for the "incurably insane" to determine which of them previously held the job he's hoping to take.

Rather than a loose excuse, Ghost Stories weaves Goodman's investigation in and out of the segmented narrative, slowly folding him into the logic of ghost stories as he begins to succumb to his own horrors. The interview format first depicts the victims in their broken aftermath, which can be even creepier than the supernatural encounter each recounts, like with Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), the demon-obsessed teenager with too many locks on his doors.

While Ghost Stories is inventive, the individual stories themselves feel a little too familiar. There's the night watchman at the abandoned asylum, a mysterious roadside encounter (but with a great twist!) and a man home alone with an angry poltergeist. But while the premises may be worn, the execution is expert. The first case kicks off with an out-of-place coffee cup and an unplugged generator, before exploding into a skin-crawling haunted house, lit only by a quivering flashlight beam.

Ghost Stories has more genuine scares than most horror movies, so it almost seems a bit unfair when it's funny too. Writing and directing duo Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman have a nasty sense of humor, unless I wasn't meant to laugh at the spirit medium fraud "channeling" a boy who died of leukemia, mumbling "my blood hurts, Mommy, my blood hurts" into the type of headset beloved by call centers, infomercial hosts and motivational speakers.

Memorable characters help. Since there's little time to establish each new haunting victim, Ghost Stories does quick-sketch British types broad enough even for unfamiliar American viewers, like Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), who blames immigrants for his failing job prospects and objects when a radio show disapproves of a racial slur. Or Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), a London finance guy who fancies himself an outdoorsman in his posh, Burberry ensemble. (Priddle also gets the strangest line of the movie, something about "pulling onions out of your asses all day long.")

Paul Whitehouse as Tony Matthews in Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s "Ghost Stories." Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release.

Ghost Stories is nostalgic in form, with more or less direct allusions to British horror movies and TV like The Devil Rides Out, Ghostwatch, Asylum, A Warning to the Curious and Whistle and I'll Come to You. Maybe it's just the Anglophile in me, but the parade of references were most fun when they felt specifically pulled from the 70s and 80s horror milieu in Britain, each of which fit the plot to perfection. Shoutouts to The Evil Dead, Rosemary's Baby, Poltergeist and even Jurassic Park (no one can tell me a character saying "life finds a way" is coincidence) begin to detract, occasionally making Ghost Stories feel more trope-dependent than thoughtfully constructed homages to British horror history.

But Ghost Stories biggest disappointment doesn't come from its nostalgia. Instead, it's the end. To keep it very non-specific and spoiler-free, Ghost Stories turns conceptual, throwing aside a tight narrative for the horror genre equivalent of Eric Idle stepping out of the fridge in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life to derail the existing plot with his "Galaxy Song." The turn is a little too dependent on our attachment to Goodman as the protagonist (rather than our spooky stories tour guide), abandoning tightly plotted scares for some mind meddling.

It may stumble on the landing, but Ghost Stories still stands tall when back-to-back with almost any other horror anthology. Ghost Stories is now available on demand and in theaters in New York, with a Los Angeles opening April 27.