More effective as a handsome homage to the portmanteau British horror of old than as a bona fide nerve-shredder in its own right, “Ghost Stories” nonetheless brings the skeletons tumbling out of its aesthetic predecessors’ long-locked, cobweb-encrusted bedroom closets with exceptionally eerie intelligence.
This tricksy little genre treat — a knockabout feature film debut for writer-directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, adapting their own West End play without sacrificing its deliberate staginess — is most evocative of old-school Amicus anthologies, like “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” (1965) and “Asylum” (1972), both starring the great Peter Cushing. Palpable, too, is the spirit of antecedent Ealing Studios classic “Dead of Night” (1945), with its spooky, pre-Lynchian circularity.
There’s an arch sophistication to those antiques, a touch of class that the horror anthology’s contemporary saviors, like “V/H/S” (2012) and its more scattershot scion “The ABCs of Death” (2013), have ditched for leaner, meaner (and, yes, cheaper) thrills.
“Ghost Stories,” as such, feels like a throwback, orchestrated by two students enamored of multiple horror masters, from Kubrick to King. The former characterizes their sense of escalating mania; the latter, their macabre morality tales. To paraphrase yet another influence, they see little terror in the boo, only the anticipation of it. This is challenging, almost cerebral horror, infrequently indulging obvious scares when deeper-set ones lurk below.
The narrative, as in the play, is built around paranormal debunker Professor Goodman (Nyman), whose career skepticism is tested as he investigates three unsolved cases. A night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) experiences visions while roaming the ruins of a former asylum. In a dark wood, a jittery teen (Alex Lawther) coming home from a party endures the hit-and-run from hell. And an ex-banker (Martin Freeman), “safe” at home, is haunted by a poltergeist as his wife suffers through labor.
Individually, the stories are fine, narratively familiar though well-executed, and expressively lensed by cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, whose oppressive sense of place and unfocused glimpses of the unexplainable sneak under the skin more cunningly than any jump-scare. But “Ghost Stories” is better described as a triptych on tattered tapestry, wreathed with conspicuous loose threads you can’t help but pull at, especially once the third tale guides your fingers, acknowledging the same motifs hidden in plain sight across the previous two.
Its climactic curtain-raise is one you’ve seen before. Then again, “Ghost Stories” is nothing if not nostalgic: for old-fashioned creepshows that send a mordant chill down the spine, shadows as sinister as the specters within them, and audiences freshly eager to peer into both.
Written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. Starring Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com.