Sunday, April 28, 2024

Horror Watch: Ghostwatch (1992)

Watched:  04/28/2024
Format:  AMC+/ Shudder trial
Viewing:  First
Director:  Lesley Manning

So, I was watching the Half In the Bag guys discuss Late Night With the Devil, and they brought up a BBC TV special (that for our purposes I'm calling a movie) from 1992.   I'd heard of Ghostwatch and seen it cited multiple places over the years, but I couldn't say exactly where or when.  What I recalled was that, much like the Mercury Theatre's famed War of the Worlds Halloween radio play that emulated a real broadcast, Ghostwatch did same on BBC, but with video, presaging both found footage movies like The Blair Witch Project, and the frenzy for supernatural investigation reality TV shows that I feel started with Ghost Hunters (which I watched, and there's a whole arc there).  

If I took Late Night With the Devil to task for not sticking with the bit, and it making things not work as a movie (and keep it from ever feeling scary) I'm doubling down on that idea.  Ghostwatch is clearly staged - the line delivery is too smooth, things are happening quickly and conveniently, etc...  But, dammit, they commit to the bit.  And they hired presenters instead of actors in key roles.

A few things that make this work:  the show originally ran on BBC on Halloween night 1992.  We were only a few years away from TV stunts like Al Capone's Vault at this time, wherein cameras would go live to some extraordinary event (although as someone who watched the vault business live, I can say - it could be a tremendous bust).  The show was hosted by Michael Parkinson, a legitimate television presenter.  This would have been a bit like having Barbara Walters host your made up Halloween special here in the US.  And they also have real presenters Mike Smith in studio and Sarah Greene as their reporter in the field - and Smith and Greene were well known TV presenters/ personalities already in 1992. 

The set up is treated fairly lightly by the supposed production crew - starting not with deadly seriousness, but as a bit of fun, which may seem a bit crass.  While we have a committed journalist there with all the accoutrements familiar to ghost chasers (thermal cams, temperature gauges, etc...) there's also a sort of presenter/ host outside cutting up and making fun of the broadcast, as you might expect, especially from the BBC.

But, above all - the show/ event is shot to look like what it purports to be - a live broadcast event.  It's captured on the same types of cameras and with the same sort of set-up you'd expect in-studio, as well as out in the field, for a real non-fiction program.  Even if they didn't land Michael Parkinson, the fact of the multi-cam set-up and the rhythm of live cutting by an experienced director just feels like a real live event, complete with occasional awkwardness covered up by our professionals.  

The on-site video is hand-held, Greene is doing her best, and you can tell starts off wanting to believe, but is really seeing her role as being as chipper as possible if this doesn't work - it's some good *acting*.  

The haunting itself is based on the Enfield Haunting which was made into The Conjuring 2 and an Apple+ miniseries, neither of which I have seen.  Two girls claimed to hear knocking, some light possession, all stuff a kid who saw The Exorcist (1973) could cook up - in 1977.  

Following this outline - for our show, there's a pair of girls living with their mother in a house, and they've reported banging on the walls, inexplicable sounds, things moving across the room and scratches appearing on the victims.  All the classic poltergeist stuff.

Over the course of the 90 minute program, things, of course, escalate.  

Beamed in from New York, Ghostwatch includes a skeptic,, but he's nowhere near as... theatrical as Late Night's  Amazing Randy stand-in in, just a scientific debunker.  And Ghostwatch includes a telephone bank in studio - originally intended for people to call in with their own spooky stories and tips.  However, as events proceed, it's used as a source for exposition, as concerned Londoners call in with history about the house and events transpiring in their own homes.

Parkinson sells it as the good-natured, but skeptical, host.  He's just doing a fun show for Halloween, and everything has an explanation.  And when he believes the show has accidentally uncovered the girls as the source of the haunting, he's ready to call it a night.  Greene's commitment and role as the believer/ only person who seems ready to actually take matters into their own hands - is actually pretty great.  

Not once do you think much in Late Night With the Devil is scary.  As an audience member, I mostly was thinking about how they're doing a bit from something else, or thinking about the weird format, what it's doing and why, questioning the choices of the filmmakers, getting repeatedly taken out of the film.  Ghostwatch is fully immersive.  It never winks or plays with the format.  For all intents and purposes, someone at home could easily have believed that what they were seeing was absolutely real.  Partially because it's done with sound, with evidence collected moments after the event occurred (paintings scattered) and indications of a specter, like pictures flying off walls, strange wet spots appearing, etc...  There's no obviously optical FX or anything telling.

Honestly, before anyone heads out to make another "this is real" horror project, they'd do well to revisit Orson Welles' radio broadcast as well as this project.  And put yourself in the shoes of the folks who missed the bit about this being a good Halloween laugh.  

The overall effect of Ghostwatch, something Late Night with the Devil never comes close to achieving, is genuinely *scary* - and shockingly so for something just on the equivalent of network TV.    We have some exposition inserted, but we don't get completely wrapped up in it.  Instead, the movie hinges on including the audience in the events.  

Here, the creators are crafting a simulation that asks "what if...?" in a way that hi-jacks how we take in media we believe to be real.  You're now a witness to the uncanny and what is happening is happening to you - which Late Night utterly throws aside.  When you do this, you kind of have to be careful, as Ghostwatch's producers learned to tragic effect.  

But that kind of audience guilelessness and impressionability also shows how and why cable news just saying any old thing has made your relatives insane.  Just sayin'. 

I wasn't around for Ghostwatch, but the weeks before, and first week of the release of The Blair Witch Project was unlike anything I'd seen before.   No one really knew what we were looking at for that brief window.  The internet was not what it now is, so all you had was a website that contained information that served the movie - and with no social media yet, you couldn't do any real digging yet on anyone, or find local news from a few years prior.  We were kind of Schroedinger's audience for a week or three in 1999, no matter how skeptical we might be.

Because Ghostwatch was aired live, and featured known personalities, I can only imagine what went down in England in 1992 that's not on Wikipedia.  I'm curious to catch the follow up real doc that was made about the how's creation and impact.  


JAL said...

It will come as no shock that I looooooove “Ghostwatch”.

That fist glimpse of the ghost when they pan across that sliding glass door it so great.

The League said...

I just watched a YouTube of all the appearances of the ghost, and it is wild. I'd caught maybe 1/3rd of them and one I was sure I'd seen confirmed. But, yeah, it's crazy that this thing isn't a bigger deal in the US,