Director: Lesley Manning
Writer: Stephen Volk
Producer: Ruth Baumgarten
Composer: Philip Appleby
Production Company: BBC
Principal Cast: Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles, Mike Smith, Gillian Bevan, Brid Brennan, Michelle Wesson, Cherise Wesson, Chris Miller
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A truly terrifying ghost story as only the BBC can make them, GhostWatch is built around that now popular conceit that you either love or you hate - the fake documentary. Posing as a live outside broadcast from the most haunted house in England, the show went out 'live' on Halloween night and caused much consternation among those viewers stupid enough not to check out the Screen One logo at the beginning of the broadcast, the cast of characters printed in various TV listings magazines or Volk's screenplay credit. Such was the furore that, almost inevitably, a suicide was blamed on the show by the sensation seeking popular press and the show became something of a taboo subject at the BBC since it's one and only broadcast.
GhostWatch is certainly as scary as hell - this review was written in broad daylight, just to be on the safe side! - but anyone with half a brain (and the ability to spot the odd bit of bad acting) could tell it was all just a colossal 'joke'. This didn't stop the BBC switchboard (along with those of Scotland Yard and the police station in Northolt, the suburb of London where the story is set) being besieged by terrified viewers who seriously believed that it was all real.
The format is simple - British TV celebrities Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles play themselves, presenters of a live TV broadcast from the haunted North London residence of Pam Early and her two daughters Kimmie and Suzanne. The build up is impeccable; Charles and Greene are in the field, interviewing the family and various locals about the strange episodes that have haunted the house and its environs for years while Smith mans the phone-in lines and Parkinson interviews Dr Lin Pascoe, an expert in the paranormal.
The conceit is well maintained, with Parkinson and co playing it all straight faced, just as if it really was a genuine outside broadcast. The early stages of the show introduce the personnel involved, lovingly detail the hi-tech gear being used, and set the background to the haunting. The first hint of what is in store comes when Pascoe shows a clip of video recorded in the house and viewers begin to phone in claiming to be able to see a shadowy figure lurking near the windows.
And sure enough, there it is, an immobile figure with no facial features, in a long black coat/dress, just visible in the shadows. This cleverly primes us to keep an eye open for this figure and as you'd expect, it keeps cropping up throughout the proceedings, always lurking in the background, in reflections or - in one of the film's most subtly disquieting moments - materializing over Pascoe's shoulder in the TV studio itself.
The suspense increases as callers phone in with more information on the appalling history of the haunted house, while at the site itself, evidence is mounting that the haunting is all a fake perpetrated by the two girls. But what effect is the broadcast having on the viewing public and why are callers' children apparently becoming 'hypnotised' by the show? Why does the house echo to the sound of crying cats? Does 'Pipes', the ghostly presence really exist, and is it the spirit of Mother Sevens, a baby murdering nanny or a child molester who committed suicide in the Glory Hole, a sinister cupboard beneath the stairs, surrounded by his ravenous cats? Or indeed is the haunting all just a colossal hoax?
The film climaxes with chaos in the Early household as the haunting spirit finally leaves no-one in any doubt as to what's really going on. As the family flee for their lives and the studio erupts in confusion and mayhem, Greene and her cameraman are drawn towards the Glory Hole where 'Pipes' is waiting for them...
It's remarkable just how scary an ordinary suburban house can become in the hands of demented TV makers determined to scare the crap out of their audience. On first viewing, unaware perhaps of the presence of the ghostly figure, the viewer might be quietly impressed simply by the cleverness of the conceit. But on second viewing, fully aware now that 'Pipes' is lurking in several shots, the film becomes infinitely scarier and the house becomes a (literally) haunted place full of shadows, strange noises and places where we just don't want to go.
Subtlety is the key word here - for all its technological excesses, this is just a good old fashioned spook show, crammed with spectral figures, strange sounds in the night and forbidden rooms beneath the staircase. While explosions of gore and loud music fail to engage us on anything other than a simple knee-jerk, visceral shock level, the image of a solitary figure, watching events unobserved by the rest of the cast, exerts a much deeper, more primal fear. John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), for example, is a film full of loud music and random acts of violence, but the most unsettling moment is when Michael Myers' apparently disembodied face appears at a window behind one of his intended victims... and does nothing but simply watches her.
Only in the hysterical closing sequence, when the haunting presence uses the TV broadcast as a "massive séance" to spread its malign influence across the whole country does the subtlety give way to horror movie histrionics. Which is a shame as it tends to mar the fine work done up to this point. The only other flaw are a few of the performances that are, sadly, below par. Gillian Bevan, as Dr Pascoe, is too obviously 'acting' and fails to appear as spontaneous as Parkinson et al, but the real let down are the two girls who seem confused by the format and are somewhat less than believable in their pivotal roles.
Volk is clearly a disciple of Nigel Kneale, who also explored the gray area that exists between science and the supernatural in many of his works. There are moments in GhostWatch that signal Volk's familiarity with Kneale's classic The Stone Tape (1972) and the apocalyptic finale is pure Kneale as the haunting spirit invades the electrical equipment in the TV studio - quite literally the ghost in the machine - and escapes its the wider world.
GhostWatch is a love it or loathe it experience - either you're willing to let yourself go and be sucked into the experience or you'll remain immune to its unearthly charms. Those who choose the former option will be rewarded with one of the scariest of ghost films, one with a deal of intelligence, wit and, above all, subtlety that many such efforts lack. It certainly stands alongside the other very fine ghost stories that the BBC have made over the years (the chilling A Ghost Story For Christmas series being particularly wonderful) and it also ranks alongside the equally compelling Special Bulletin (1983), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Cloverfield (2008) as a shining example of just how effective the fake documentary format can be in skilled hands.