So once again we have survived.

Ghostwatch

tn_ghostwatchsummer2016originsGHOSTWATCH is a famous 1992 BBC Halloween special which, like THE CONJURING 2, is based on the alleged ghosting incident known as “The Enfield Poltergeist.” A mom and her two young daughters claimed to have a ghost they could hear knocking on the walls and bending their spoons and stuff. And there really was no way to disprove that this was a ghost, other than that they caught the kids faking it. Still, other than that, 100% for sure it was real ghosts and worthy of multiple true story movies and books.

While THE CONJURING goes through the motions of pretending to be based on a true story, GHOSTWATCH goes the extra mile and pretends to be a documentary. It takes the form of a live broadcast with an in-studio host (Michael Parkinson as himself), on a corny set decorated with skulls and crystal balls, interviewing a doctor (Gillian Bevan) who’s supposed to have investigated the case. They have a bunch of screens to go via satellite to the house, where a reporter (Sarah Greene as herself) and camera crew are with the family talking about their story and hoping to document ghost activity. Also Red Dwarf‘s Craig Charles (playing himself) is the wacky comic relief reporter on the scene outside the house. And in the studio they also have a phone bank and take calls about people’s ghost stories and stuff.

mp_ghostwatchThey’re pretty calm about the whole thing. They don’t act like they think they’ll definitely see anything, and when people call in claiming to notice strange things in the live feed the host rejects them at first. Just like in the real case, one of the girls is caught faking it (banging a broom handle against the wall and screaming) and the investigator continues with the argument that yeah, but most of the time it was real though. That’s actually a clever and unexpected thing to do in a mockumentary like this. It makes the supernatural shit feel more earned, as if the skeptics have had their chance already.

The girls call the ghost “Pipes” because that’s what Mom first said was making the knocking sound. Like in most ghost movies, a backstory is discovered for Pipes. It comes from a guy calling in who has information that the doctor doesn’t, and it ties together some of the things they’ve been seeing and hearing.

As the fictional audience combed the background for important details like ghostly shadows and shit I was doing something very similar but way more important. While the real incident was in 1989, the show of course had to take place in 1992, as we can see by the posters and pinups hanging in the girls’ room. I can’t identify any of the teen heart throbs, but here are Kris Kross and two MC Hammers:

 

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I tried to call in to warn them, but the number didn’t work for some reason.

By the end of the special we’re hearing about ghostly phenomenon spreading through people’s TVs, and finally it makes it to the studio, where the lights explode and cameras move around on their own. That’s a good way to make people scared in their homes, especially considering how few ghostbusters were around to help at that time since eminently qualified women were turned down due to the sexist policies that had always been the main appeal of the movie and why it was a hit and it would be ruined if it was a different cast that was women because how would they pee if they got trapped in a car somewhere during a ghost mission they wouldn’t be able to pee in a bottle which is the main talent of all ghostbusters and the only reason the movie was ever made.

I had to get a PAL import to watch GHOSTWATCH, and apparently it wasn’t even available like that for quite a few years, adding to its legend. Reportedly there was a War of the Worlds type situation where people thought it was really going on and were scared out of their pants and socks and what not. I find that shocking. Maybe a familiarity with early ’90s British live broadcasts would reveal more subtleties, but to me it always plays as a clearly scripted, acted story. That said, hats off to the performance by Bevan, especially her expression while playing a disturbing recording she made. She has the exact correct look that someone makes while they’re playing somebody a tape that they themselves are already very familiar with but they’re listening to it again with you as you hear it for the first time.

As a member of the community that ain’t fraid of no ghost, I did not find this scary. But it is a cleverly put together piece of television. For scaredy cats it might be worth seeking out. There’s also a documentary about the show and its popularity called GHOSTWATCH: BEHIND THE CURTAINS.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 at 10:57 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Ghostwatch”

  1. As a young Brit at the time, I can honestly say that many people took Ghostwatch seriously. X-Files was still a year away (Michael’s Biehn’s Asteroid another five), and there hadn’t really been anything of this ilk since War of the Worlds. Mockumentry wasn’t a word we’d heard (save for the cool cats who’d seen Spinal Tap). Especially not on TV. Consider also that Parkinson is/was a hugely respected and honest TV host. While he’d playfully interview all the biggest stars, he wasn’t as Hunter Thompson-esque as say Jimmy Kimmel. He didn’t do things like that. So it was a pretty badass coup to get him to agree to it, which helped “put it over” as the wrestling fans would say. I also think it was broadcast live, without weeks and weeks of build up and so fourth. It was just sort of on one night. It took lots of people by surprise.

    I think the slogan on the DVD about it being “banned” is a bit misleading. It was most likely just forgotten about. It’s hardly the Human Centipede or a Lars von Trier movie. Still, a great find, and one I’d love to watch again some day.

  2. Oh man, GHOSTWATCH. Bizarrely enough I was talking about this today with someone in work because they’d never seen it (And had just watched THE CONJURING 2).

    So this was a massive deal at the time. Michael Parkinson was a well respected talk show host (Check out his earlier 70s stuff on YouTube) and there was a certain naivety that someone of his stature would never be involved with something like this. Sarah Greene was on kids TV every Saturday morning and had spent the weeks running up to the broadcast teasing it, which in turn had a lot of kids tuning in and promptly getting terrified. Remember this is before the Internet, before the wealth of channels that you get now. In the UK at the time the majority of the Country only got 4 channels, perhaps 5, and these hosts were people you were seeing week after week. Again, naively, there’s a certain element of trust there.

    It’s not just that a few people believed it, it’s that it resulted in 30,000 calls to the BBC in a single hour. I can’t understate enough just how much people lost their shit. The next day the BBC were raked over the coals by the newspapers for the hoax, which had a lot of people genuinely terrified and concerned for the safety of the hosts. Sure the effect isn’t the same now, but at the time it worked completely. I would’ve been about 10 at the time, and I remember watching it with my family and feeling that sense of “Yeah yeah this is bullshit” to “Uh what the fuck is going on?”. It’s going to look silly now, and yes watching it again it’s generally hokey aside from some really good moments, but for the next couple of days it was all people were talking about.

  3. Well, holy shit, I did not see this review coming.

    I remember watching this the Halloween night it was shown (the only night, in fact – it’s never been repeated, at least not on terrestrial TV), and I absolutely loved it.

    It was just incredibly clever – the fake phoneline, the “mistakes”, the cast – all, apart from Charles, known for a lot of cosy TV. And the finale blew my mind.

    There’s never been anything quite like it since, I’m pretty sure. I really do think it’s a minor work of British TV genius.

    The Beeb quietly shelved the show after all the complaints, leading to bootleg VHS tapes changing hands for £150+ back in the day. (A bit pricey – I could get 2 Salo’s and a Cannibal Ferox for that.)

    There is a sequel, of sorts, in Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk’s book of short stories, Dark Corners, called “31/10” – in fact, you can download it for free, all legit like, from his website.

  4. I remember watching this live and being terrified. The next time I saw it was on YouTube about 5 years ago, and the second half still really worked. This is a BBC Classic without doubt, but it aired with no fanfare, so everyone took it at face value at the time. Some people really lost their shit over it.

    This is by far the most surprising review Vern has done yet.

  5. Yeah, watching this as an American and KNOWING the history of this means that there’s like 2 layers of remove that you have while you’re watching this. But this is ripe to be remade in America and freak people the fuck out.

    Picture it: it’s a live Sunday night prime-time special on CBS hosted by Anderson Cooper on the subject of the supernatural. He throws to remotes hosted by Connie Chung and Ed Bradley, with comic relief segments from Andy Samberg. Live Twitter feeds going on the bottom of the page, and Cooper reads postings from the show’s Facebook page. Just like in Ghostwatch, some mythology about Indian ghosts seeking revenge for their extinction is discussed and the show starts centering on it. Ed’s remote goes dark, Connie goes to audio only, Samberg breaks out with smallpox, Twitter blows up with people having shit moving around their house, and the show ends with Cooper’s eyes rolling back in his head and he pulls the top off his head. THAT’S Must See TV.

  6. Captain Aktion

    July 6th, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    Gotta check out the WNUF Halloween Special.

  7. This movie still has my absolute favorite Ghost backstory ever. There is no tragedy or injustice the ghost is trying to avenge, no particularly gruesome fate that happened to him, he simply was a hateful and violent asshole in life and continues to be a hateful and violent asshole in death.

  8. Really surprise at you reviewing this Vern. I alos remember the night that this was shown in the UK. I had missed the first 10 minutes and changed the channel over, so I wasn’t really sure what I was watching,a nd by them using Michael Parkinson I just assumed that it was a legit documentary. I still remember all the complaints the in the newspapers, and how after the broadcast it had apparently drove someone to commit suicide.

    Watching it back now, I wonder how the hell people were really fooled by it. My excuse was being 10 years old at the time. Some of the acting is quite poor, especially the Welsh guy with the comedy accent that phones the helpline. Still there are still some creepy parts to it, and it is good fun trying to notice mr pipes in the background of certain scenes.

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