Thursday, October 25, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 25: Ghostwatch

October 25th: Ghostwatch (1992)

(Whole review is a big spoiler)

In 1992, Leslie Manning put together a live BBC expose concerning the paranormal. The special aired Halloween night, with English personality Michael Parkinson as host. While supplemental interviews with skeptics and believers alike are included, the special focused mainly on one particularly haunted house: the home of Pamela Early and her two daughters Suzanne and Kim. A camera crew had agreed to spend the entire night in the Early homestead, to see if a malevolent poltergeist young Kim has named "Pipes" will show his presence. In studio with Parkinson was paranormal investigator Dr. Lin Pascoe, and--via satellite feed--skeptic Alan Demescu. Operators stood by to answer phone calls from viewers. As the special progressed, it became apparent that something was indeed haunting the Early home, and was somehow affecting not only the studio crew but also viewers. A caller with some shocking information about the house set events in motion which cut through the stuffy BBC presentation to create uncontrollable chaos. By the end, it seemed all involved were in extreme psychic danger, and "Pipes" seemed an irrefutable reality. The rub: none of it was real. Besides the known television personalities, the characters in the film are played by actors.

I had the benefit of starting this film believing it was in fact a documentary; while I figured out it was a hoax less than fifteen minutes in, I can imagine many viewing the film wouldn't catch on, especially children. Indeed, Ghostwatch supposedly makes the British Medical Journal as the first television show to have caused Post-Traumatic Stress in young viewers. If you read the IMDb message boards, it becomes obvious that this film had a major impact in the UK when it first aired, and that many believed it the entire way through. Parkinson and the other British reporters in Ghostwatch are all household names in the UK, which lent the film a special believability.

The opening scene in the film is a bit of archival footage from the Early girls' bedroom. This sequence is the film's most frightening. For several minutes the audience is forced to scan a pitch-black room, which remains distressingly still, until eventually the girls begin to scream, as the room shakes its contents until a lamp crashes to the ground. At this point I began to suspect I was being had. Watching the shape of the film solidify, this fact becomes rather obvious. The editing is too tight to be live, and some of the actors give it away, especially mother Early. All of the newscasters, however, are fully believable. After all, these are professional fakers. Also by the end, subtle musical cues are audible. The filmmakers perhaps thought viewers would be too terrified to notice.

Pipes, while never the subject of a filmic reveal, is hidden throughout, flattened in dark crevices of the frame. Many viewers have attempted to make lists of his many appearances. Pipes is even supposedly standing in the crowd of rubberneckers gathered outside the Early home. I must admit, I didn't see him once, and I was looking too. I'll definitely be revisiting the picture with this in mind.

While the reality of the film might have been better handled (style would need to be sacrificed), this is still incredibly bold, riveting television. A DVD is available from bfi which contains an informative commentary track. Ghostwatch, after all, is more than TV, its a historical event. While on this side of the ocean it may not be as effective, and time is not on its side, this is still a tight, brave, and yes, scary film.

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