Tuesday, October 30, 2012

31 Horrors: Ghostwatch (#18)

Wherein I attempt to watch 31 horror films over the course of October. 31 horror films that I have never seen before, from obscure to acclaimed classics. We'll see how well I go in actually finding the time to watch and then write about them in some way.

It's like Paranormal Activity in Prime Time!

Imagine Lake Mungo, with it's investigative Dateline/Australian Story/60 Minutes approach to a family's haunting, but done live to air. In 1992, before "found footage" was a term used to identify films of its kind. When the prospect of national celebrities portraying themselves on a BBC special event wasn't even entertained as fiction, but rather a very real documentary. Such is the idea behind Ghostwatch, a British television program that would become one of the most controversial of its time and scare almost an entire nation into believing that ghosts were real. That is, until those involved were forced to apologise for misleading the public even though the program's credits don't leave much in the way of ambiguity. Such is the rabid hysteria of the public.

Man oh man, did I love Ghostwatch! Relatively obscure outside of Britain I should imagine, but its ten year ban by its own network, the BBC, suggests it should be held in higher regard. Playing the ol' Orson Welles/War of the Worlds trick on unsuspecting British TV viewers on Halloween night resulted in thousands of calls and even a controversial implication in the suicide of a mentally unstable man several days after it aired. Ghostwatch, beyond its scary surface and spine-chilling revelations, digs deeper into the national psyche than, say, Paranormal Activity, by also working as a tell tale sign of society's more gullible nature and the domination that television has (well, had) over them.

Ghostwatch was supposedly a special event piece of television, broadcast on BBC1 and heralded as live reality. Cameras and reporters were placed in the scene of a house on Halloween night that had, before then, become known as a hub of poltergeist disturbances. Hosted by famous chat show personality Michael Parkinson, featuring several well known British identities (including Red Drawf's Craig Charles), and including actors portraying psychic professionals as well as the very haunted family of mother and two daughters, Ghostwatch takes its time to really get going, but those who are paying close attention will get chills out of the entire enterprise.

By the time the film's final 20 minutes or so comes around, I was already well and truly intrigued and had experienced a couple of very decent frights (my suspicions were right when I thought I'd caught a glimpse of the mysterious "Pipes"). What I didn't expect was the level of almost paralysing fear that the climax would throw at me. Rigid with fear and audibly gasping on a high frequency, Ghostwatch worked spectacularly well and more than justifies its reputation as an oughtta be eminent Halloween classic. The final image especially of a dazed Michael Parkinson - remember, he's a huge star both in the UK and Australia - mumbling about the BBC set before creator Stephen Volk's last chilling utterance made getting to sleep a harder task than I'd expected.

Readers would be aware that I am very much a fan of the Paranormal Activity features as well as The Blair Witch Project and the aforementioned Lake Mungo. When this type of film works well there's almost nothing I find scarier. Ghostwatch is another stellar example of it, made even more provocative by the project's history and the way its makers went about it. I watched it nearly 20 years to the day since its British premiere (it's never played since) and it's very much as effective now as it was in 1992. It's also the best thing I've seen during my month-long horror trek. A

1 comment:

Sluggie said...

Glad you enjoyed Ghostwatch. I remember watching it on the BBC all those years ago, but I was well aware it was a play at the time as it had been advertised as such. I think the people who were caught out were the ones who stumbled upon it whilst flicking channels, not having seen the beginning. I remember being terrified of it all those years ago and it still gives me chills when I watch the DVD. Its always worth a re-watch to look out for the various sightings of Pipes - he turns up more times than you'd imagine.