The British movie Ghost Stories is based on a popular London play that earned the best kind of audience support: Throughout its long run, its spoilers have been preserved by appreciative patrons.
Ads outside the theaters show only photos of the shocked reactions of the audience, so the content of the drama remains a mystery to those who venture in.
Descriptions of the play (they apply to the movie as well) are kept to a minimum: There are three interlocking stories, related by a narrator who is also a character in each. He's Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), a TV host who has devoted his life and career debunking phony spiritualists. He investigates stories of the supernatural and exposes them as hoaxes, or as events that can be explained by scientific phenomena.
In other words, he's a spoilsport, a know-it-all, and the kind of smug egghead who's likely to have his skepticism (and nerve) tested in the course of Ghost Stories.
Certainly that is basis of the dare set forth in the opening moments of the film, when Goodman is contacted by another mythbuster who hands him folders about three cases of the supernatural he was unable to disprove.
Off goes Goodman to reinvestigate the three incidents: a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who had his wits scared out of him while patrolling the vacant grounds of a former asylum for disturbed women; a teen (Alex Lawther from Black Mirror) who has a terrifying encounter on a lonely road at night; and a wealthy financier (Martin Freeman) who has an unpleasant story to tell about his wife's pregnancy.
The movie is mostly gore free and tame by the standards of modern horror movies, and some of the familiar visual touches borrow greedily from the James Wan school. But it's smartly written and well-acted — most of the performers reprise their roles from the stage, and their timing is expert and assured.
There are also more than a few macabre laughs — the piece is cowritten by Nyman and Jeremy Dyson of the comedy troupe League of Gentleman. Dyson and Nyman share directing duties here.
The material also proves to be a nice match for the screen — it recalls the British horror anthologies of the 1950s and 1960s, and also vintage TV shows like Night Gallery, which featured the terse narration of post-Twilight Zone Rod Serling.
He would have loved the way Nyman and Dyson pulls the string at the end, unifying the stories into one tidy bundle, and a single shudder.