It’s that time again. Halloween is only a couple of days away and the B-Movie Webmasters are giving you precisely what you expected for this round of roundtable reviews. The theme this month is, of course, Halloween movies and while Bad Movies is giving you House 2 and Jordan at the B-Movie Film Vault is doing Ernest Scared Stupid, I’m going the unconventional route once again and delivering something that folks in the UK may be familiar with while those of us in the states will be completely in the dark. However, the word on the streets about Ghostwatch was that it was quite the phenomenon and nearly akin to the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds.
I’ll go on record and tell the world that in spite of my affinity for gore and violent horror movies I’m actually a huge fan of haunted house movies more than anything. There was a time when writers and producers knew how to do it right. The thrill and fear generated by just such a movie was the torment that you couldn’t see. You never knew what it looked like or where it was going to be next. When I was a little kid, my mom told me stories about living in a haunted house in Marblehead, Massachusetts and that was some shit that fascinated me ever since. The thing is, when someone asks me what my favorite haunting movie is, I can never come up with an example.
It’s Halloween night in 1992 and the BBC is holding a special “live” investigation of a house inhabited by a single mother and her two daughters who are tormented by a ghost that they named Pipes. Pipes bangs on the walls, throws things around and leaves scratches on the face of the oldest daughter. There are other phenomena such as stains, strange smells and the sound of cats from a crawlspace under the stairs. The Beeb has employed real BBC journalists, Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith and Sarah Greene plus Red Dwarf’s Craig Charles as a kooky man on the street personality to lighten the mood in what is an otherwise dire situation for the family at hand. In the studio is Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith. Parkinson leads the show, aided by an “actual” parapsychologist while Mike Smith mans the phone banks which are allegedly taking live calls from viewers sharing their own ghost stories. They even flash a number on the screen encouraging viewers to call in. On the scene is Sarah Greene plus camera guy and sound guy.
The setup seems very authentic. The BBC personalities are on an off-night doing a Halloween gig so their performances are very informal and Craig Charles, being the guy from the comedy show, does his best to bounce around and keep the mood light. The family occupying, the Early’s are also quite convincing. It’s rare when fundamental elements come together like this to create a functional hoax since it’s often very difficult to act natural when given a script to read. Mom and the girls occasionally slip into hammy acting but for the most part, there are times when you might forget that they’re actors. Unfortunately, the setup takes a very, very long time to get rolling. Everyone, minus the Earlys are all smiles and there’s a lot of goofing around. After all, it’s Halloween!
Early on, they tease you with a little video that you may or may not notice. It’s lights off time for the girls and once the lights go out, the surveillance camera shows the figure of a person standing in the drapes near the window. This is disputed early on, but it has people calling in to point it out. Keep your eyes peeled, it’s not the last time you’ll get a glimpse of Pipes. He shows up through out the show mixed in with people standing on the street and briefly reflected in windows and mirrors. His appearances are quite chilling but like most good ghost movies they don’t give you too much and they always leave you wanting more.
Based almost entirely on the Enfield Poltergeist, sort of Britain’s equivalent of DiFeo murder house of The Amityville Horror, Ghostwatch plays it straight but borrows heavily from that story. The phenomena of the haunting is common to paranormal fans but the revelation that the oldest daughter is responsible for some of the slamming on the walls calls into question the events of the entire night. On hand to gloat is a smug American asshole from a skeptics society in New York, evident by the poster of the city displayed next to him on the wall. However, the pace builds, there is more phenomena and despite what it looks like as the daughter pounds on the walls, we, the viewers, have still seen Pipes here and there throughout the program even though Michael Parkinson and Dr. Pascoe seem ready to throw in the towel. So as the tension mounts, people call in with the background on the house. First it was a sort of foster home where the woman in charge drowned the kids and then many years later it was home to a deranged man subletting the room under the stairs illegally, going further out of his mind, molesting children. It is suggested that before he, as Pipes the ghost, something evil existed in the house already, another ghost perhaps or even the location itself carried a black mark with it that affected all who lived on or near it. It’s quite a backstory and the gentle unfolding of its parts is beautifully executed.
Strange things begin happening back at the BBC, too. Technical issues plague the set and there are problems with the lights. The video feed at the house is breaking up and following another brief, chilling glimpse of Pipes under the stairs, the sound man is knocked out when a mirror flies off the wall. Meanwhile, callers are reporting that strange things are happening at their own homes mirroring what is happening on TV and Dr. Pascoe flees, declaring the show a seance that has helped Pipes escape the house and into greater England. Those who can be found in the house are evacuated, the sound man taken to the hospital and Craig Charles’ grinning demeanor is reduced to sheer anxiety. Sarah Greene and the camera man are still inside with the older daughter who shouts from under the stairs that Pipes is hurting her. When Sarah opens the crawlspace to help, she is pulled in and the door slams behind her. The feed goes dead and it’s back to the studio where shit is flying everywhere. Michael Parkinson is left alone in the studio, only partially shown when his voice suddenly changes to the false chords voice heard earlier in other characters suggested to be possessed by Pipes.
I have the deepest sort of envy for British TV viewers. Writers and producers of genre entertainment there seem to have a deeper respect for the viewer and of what has trickled my way via PBS, BBC America or the good old internet, I have loved entirely. I could rattle off a list of outstanding TV shows that transcend anything in circulation on American TV. Ghostwatch is just another addition to the list.
If the IMDB or Wikipedia are to be believed and I really have no yardstick to gauge their accuracy, Ghostwatch generated a minor panic among viewers who completely failed to miss the writer’s credit at the beginning. Either way, many people today still consider this to be a milestone of horror television. It’s not hard to believe that people would have taken it seriously, after all these were established television journalists best known for sober reporting. This sort of thing would never have flown in the United States. Some stuffy asshole like Brian Williams would consider this career suicide. I don’t think even Chris Hansen would do it and his entire career is predicated on busting perverts on live television!
In summary, Ghostwatch is a solid feature that has somehow managed to age well despite being 15 years old and is still absolutely chilling when it’s trying to be. Those of you readers with the capability to play Region 2 DVD would be doing yourself a great service by owning this DVD released by the British Film Institute. It’s just one more reason alongside Doctor Who that British TV kicks the shit out of everyone else’s TV.