by Michael Seymour Blake
You’re an innocent British child in 1992. It’s a quarter to 10 and your parents allow you to watch some nighttime television with them. BBC’s been on in the background, but none of you have been paying it much attention.
Turns out it’s a live news broadcast from an allegedly haunted house. One of the reporters is Sarah Greene, a children’s programming host. It becomes increasingly obvious that this whole “investigation” is just the network’s way of serving up some spooky Halloween fun—even if it is at the expense of homeowner Pamela Early (Brid Brennan) and her two daughters.
But something doesn’t feel right. There’s a ghoulish figure lingering near the curtains in the children’s room. You’re sure of it. Others are too. People keep calling the provided number to talk about it.
Back on the set, Host Michael Parkinson, a trusted and familiar journalist/broadcaster, pulls up a still of the curtains. The thing, whatever it is, looms there. You feel its eyes on you. Michael and his guest, parapsychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), attribute the illusion to shadows and rumples in the material.
They could be right. Maybe it’s just a trick of the light.
No, something’s there. The Early children refer to this entity as “Pipes” because that’s initially what their mother blamed the ongoing strange banging noises on—the benign innards of an unhaunted house.
Pipes. The denomination gives you goosebumps.
Outside on the streets, locals tell frightening stories involving dead dogs, ghost defecation, and child killers. All this, and you’re pretty sure (you keep doubting yourself) that you’ve spotted Pipes a few more times. Silently surveying with those black, sunken eyes…
Your parents exchange poorly concealed looks of concern. The thudding in your chest is almost unbearable. Something evil is unfolding before the entire nation’s eyes. Your parents call the network in a panic. The signal’s busy. Any semblance of youthful security crumbles away as vomit rises in your throat.
Many people were similarly traumatized by the brilliant, misguided airing of Ghostwatch.
Had those poor souls tuned in earlier, they would’ve seen a message making it very clear this was all fiction—a TV movie written by Stephen Volk made to look like a live broadcast. But it’s 1992. You can’t rewind in real time, and the internet is nowhere near what it is today. Thousands felt duped, angered, and traumatized.
Missing that essential opening disclaimer left deciphering the authenticity of the events purely up to everyone’s own critical thinking abilities… and when people are afraid, critical thinking is often the first thing to go. Entire households temporarily lost their footing with reality, women went into early labor, a man defecated in his pants, people puked from pure fright, and, saddest of all, a boy reportedly took his own life days after watching.
The BBC didn’t see it coming. They anticipated some people phoning in, but they’d set up automated messages assuring everyone what they witnessed was for entertainment purposes only. They also had operators on standby to assuage the occasional extra nervous viewer. Thing is, the lines became so flooded that many were met with a busy signal.
Panic and outrage led to this being the first and only airing of Ghostwatch.
This movie’s controversial history may pique your interest or turn you off, but is it any good?
For my money—very.
Director Lesley Manning recalls the filming experience as “fantastically technical.” That much is apparent from the start. It takes a lotta work to create the illusion of live television, and there’s an undeniable meticulousness about Ghostwatch. Executives initially pictured a more traditional filming style—ya know, shot on film with dramatic angles, a polished look, maybe a bit more cinematic distance from all the action—but Manning was committed to verisimilitude. Why ruin the broadcast TV effect by shooting on film? She wanted it to look as authentic as possible. No fancy cinematography or any of that. And she wanted it all on tape, and a good portion utilizing a handheld camera. The final product mimics what a live TV special would look like at the time.
Creative restraint pulled me further into the deception. Besides the opening security footage, Ghostwatch holds back the horror as much as possible, making every effort to seem like nothing is going to happen. Hanging back so boldly earns it a ton of believability. But if you’re not into subtlety, don’t worry—it gets pretty apocalyptic later.
There’s a possession scene that I’d stand by as being one of the best in cinema thanks to how understated it is. Movie possessions often go over the top. They’re frightening in the moment, but eventually kinda blend into each other with tons of screams, howls, and guttural ramblings. This one feels domestic and conceivable. I still can’t stop hearing “what big eyes you have.”
Even at its mildest, there’s an ominous mood throughout Ghostwatch. I never felt safe (despite occasionally having to remind myself I wasn’t, in fact, watching some dry British program). Take the infrared camera demonstration at the beginning for example. Excited people wave and laugh, all thermally lit up. I couldn’t quite say why, but it put me on edge. And any technical blip sent a jolt of fear down my spine.
During an interview about Ghostwatch, a concerned mother described how deeply the pseudo-documentary disturbed her child even before anything spooky actually occurred. There was just “something very sinister in the presentation,” she says.
Something sinister in the presentation. Couldn’t have said it better.
The acting is almost flawless. There are some points when you can see through the charade, but everyone knows the mission. They keep it natural, occasionally sloppy (even stumbling over their words), occasionally awkward. The imperfect stuff of real life. During the first act, a jovial (maybe selling it slightly too hard?) Craig Charles speaks with the Earlys. They seem uncomfortable, words almost muttered, mouths too far away from the microphone. The impression we’re left with is a believable family desperately looking for help. When Pamela chokes up I bought it so hard I went broke.
Further selling the “live television” fiction are the street interviews, which involve local non-actors sharing ghost stories. These apparently-unscripted segments are like sinister pinches of realism spice sprinkled over the baked slow burn horror pie that is this movie.
Some beautifully planned moments can, even if for a second, trick you into thinking you’re watching genuine events transpire.
One of my favorites is when a mysterious circle of goo appears on the Early’s living room carpet. Reporter Sarah Greene uses a handkerchief to check the light fitting for a leak from above, finding everything perfectly dry. Dr. Pascoe asks her (through an earpiece) to sniff the “hanky.” I wanted to scream “don’t do it.” She brings it to her nose and takes a whiff. Nope, no smell. Then the ever-professional doctor requests a sample of the stuff. Greene agrees, but doesn’t have anything to collect it with. That’s when the sound recordist hands her a lens duster. The flow here is so natural that I was momentarily impressed by his spontaneous resourcefulness (of course, it was all in the script).
I could stop here, but I want to describe a little more because I just love it:
Improvised sample tool in hand, Greene crouches over the ooze and uses the suction created by squeezing and releasing the duster to siphon some up. Slurp, slurp, slurp. Such an uncomfortable moment. While you’re busy being vaguely worried about her interacting with the substance, one of the children suddenly appears for a nice little jump scare.
Lurking at the center of it all is Pipes, whose menacing presence violates even the most lighthearted of scenes. By the end, the dribs and drabs we get of his backstory form a haunting mythology. Also, watch closely and you’ll notice him popping up now and again. After I finished Ghostwatch, I went back and rewatched some of the appearances I’d missed. Somehow knowing he was present without my having noticed it made Pipes even more frightening.
Ghostwatch asks us if we should trust something simply because it’s on TV. Should we accept whatever a familiar face on the screen tells us is true? Whether this movie explores these concepts successfully, I can’t say. It sure fooled a ton of people. But did it make them question their favorite news sources, or fact check a celebrity’s comment on some sociopolitical issue? Either way, I respect the ambition.
I may admire this movie too much. I don’t necessarily think it has mass appeal. It’s almost 2023 and most of us have seen some grisly stuff. You may come away underwhelmed. Still, I find it to be, at minimum, among the best “found footage” horror movies ever made. It’s classy without being too stiff and gruesome without using gore.
One thing’s certain: had I seen Ghostwatch as a child that one fateful night in 1992, I would’ve spontaneously combusted.
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