Film of the Week: Ghostwatch (1992)

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Lesley Manning directs Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles in this “live” ghost hunting reality show mockumentry that shocked a nation.

So Film of the Week isn’t a film… Sorry. There’s a part of me that wanted to leave the suppressed by the BBC since broadcast Ghostwatch alone, unrefreshed as a formative memory of my childhood. I watched it live that Halloween in our Bordars Road terraced house only a mile or so from the Northolt setting. I remember not being convinced entirely, it came with a “written by” credit at the start, but there eventually were two or three effective scares that have lingered with me over the next quarter decade. Like many people of my vintage, Mr Pipes stayed with us. This, with Jacob’s Ladder and The People Under the Stairs, was one of the first chillers I remember choosing to watch. As a national hoax, intended or not, Ghostwatch took enough people in. Handovers from studio to location are familiarly flubbed, the 0181 811 8181 number to call in on was the same used for any live program, it all convinces. The real life presenters (exactly the type of personalities who would be roped into this if it were an actual BBC live event in 1992) thrown into the narrative hit their marks well and any falseness in their or “the family”‘s performances can be excused as much to the stilted artificially of a live TV broadcast in the 90s as unintentional bad acting. No one really ever revealed themselves with cameras so obviously watching back then (if even now) and the professionals are used to faking enthusiasm to keep the broadcast watchable. So once the subtle scares start coming you could get caught up in it. In context. See that context was important… Once you know it definitely is a work of fiction Ghostwatch can be a drag, especially in its first half. In its need to “pass” as a real live broadcast very little happens for 45 minutes so as in any good swindle the fix is established before the hurrah. So watching it as a retrospective experience with no nostalgic attachment must be frustrating. Like I say, I was uncertain about revisiting it for fear of discovering it wasn’t all that good and only really sought it out as The Conjuring 2 shared so much with my static filled memories of  a young girl talking as Mr Pipes. Both sets of writers used the historic Enfield Poltergiest as a synoptic starting point, and I’d be shocked if the modern blockbuster’s crew hadn’t at least had a screening – much like the clearly inspired but superior Blair Witch Project’s directors must have. Found footage horror, a cycle that has just now ended, took its first steps here. Cinematically, Ghostwatch the one-off, never rebroadcast TV gamble is a key work in horror.  But then in that final half the show begins to creepily spook you out – there’s no Grand Guignol, no jump scares. In fact, it all stays pretty much just out of sight. Your imagination starts to take hold to fill the blanks between the small occurrences; objects smash and move, noises distract the crew, the kids grow more and more distressed, a shot appears on the screen that suggests calm has been restored but in your heart you chillingly know that Pipes now is in control of OB van’s mixing desk… plus a possession and then someone goes under the stairs. It’s still all relatively PG / Lemon and Lime marinade heat stuff but remember people watching couldn’t be sure if it was legit or not. And then there is a nastier, more disturbing undercurrent beyond the disorienting con. The talking heads, phone-in voices and vox pops from the locals are filled with short bursts of campfire ghost tales filled with inception igniting imagery like dog foetus’ strewn and faces eaten by cats. Outside all the “real time” razzmatazz Ghostwatch is riddled with good, old fashioned spooky storytelling, each one building in ferocity and intensity. There is also the subversive use of the word “Gloryhole” frequently said by a key children’s presenter and the almost subliminal shot of her opening a child’s drawing of a spunking cock and having to move swiftly on. A twisted mind is gently working the audience at home while showing very little obvious horror. As a cold experience for the uninitiated it probably should deserve a lower score but I was part of the generation that is a key touchstone for, I rate the trickery, and as a delivery system for some Halloween spoken word chillers, Ghostwatch achieves even more than its smoke and mirrors controversial reputation promises.

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