Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Last of the materialists. That's like last of the dinosaurs": GHOSTWATCH

Directed by Lesley Manning
Starring Michael Parkinson, Michael Smith, Sarah Greene, and Craig Charles

Among a niche audience of horror buffs, Ghostwatch stands as the British answer to Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast. This is actually a little too simplistic, because whereas Welles' broadcast was never intended to be taken for a real news broadcast (it had been presented with the Mercury Theatre opening and credits, but station-switching audiences had missed the introduction), Ghostwatch was.

Ghostwatch was presented on Halloween in 1992 as a BBC news special, including normal television anchors and interviewers, who were investigating a haunted house on live television. This wasn't an "In Search Of" style show, where an expectation or suspicion of trickery lurks around the edges. Nor was the footage presented as pre-recorded and edited. And the anchors weren't faded TV stars or credulous mystics. These were normal, trusted BBC newscasters (imagine Mike Wallace or Stone Phillips or Bryant Gumbel perpetrating a similar hoax). The fact that this was a call-in show, that was supposed to include interviews with experts, discussion with viewers, and interviews with other people that had experienced hauntings, suggested that there was no certainty that the "haunted" house would even present any paranormal phenomenon. For the majority of the show, the anchors and reporters range from politely skeptical to outright condescending to the idea that the paranormal was even possible.

So it's no wonder that the public was shocked when the show was "interrupted" with technical difficulties suggesting paranormal activity, or that a bunch of "concerned citizens" blocked it from airing on Television in its original form for years to come.

But heading into a screening at Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, I had to wonder how shocking it would be. After all, I already knew the backstory. And in an age of "found-footage" films and "mockumentaries", how ground-breaking would it really seem?

The answer is that Ghostwatch still has the capacity to scare. It's not really a gory film and the effects are rather simple (a wind machine, a lot of sound effects, a creepy figure in a costume), but the whole thing is handled to such an elegant effect that it haunted me long after I left the theatre.

To its credit, even knowing the central premise of Ghostwatch, the show was very suspenseful. The show tips its hand fairly early that there is something odd going on here, when the anchors broadcast footage previously shot in the haunted house and we see a shadowy figure that the anchors can't see, even when they slow it down and watch frame-by-frame. So the old axiom, attributed to Hitchcock, that watching two men play cards can be thrilling if you know there's a ticking time bomb under their chairs and they don't, is at work here.

Furthermore, the haunting scenario has a few twists and turns in it that will surprise even a viewer expecting to get spooked. For one thing, the theories of the paranormal investigator, Dr. Lin Paskoe (Brid Bevan), who is the only one other than the victims that believes in the haunting from the outset, turn out to be somewhat off-base. On the house's history, she's as much in the dark as the victims and the anchors. Usually in these types of films, the occult expert is usually completely right and the skeptics are completely wrong. It's refreshing to have both sides to turn out to be somewhat right in the details, but wrong on the big picture. And the scenes where she's arguing with a skeptical American researcher suggest that, for all her careful work and attempts to remain scientific, that she's a little too emotionally invested in this pursuit for her own good.

For another thing, about halfway through, the reporters capture footage on tape of a young girl making the "noises" attributed to the poltergeist. For the audiences at home, unaware of what was to happen, it must have lulled them into a false sense of security. For a more cynical viewer, it knocked me off my feet. How were they going to recover from that?

As for whether the show would hold up after years of films like the Blair Witch Project and several iterations of Paranormal Activity, the answer is that it does. Since this event is being filmed by a professional news crew, there's not a ridiculous over-reliance on "shaky-cam". And once all hell breaks loose, the broadcast has a variety of tricks to show us things going wrong.

The production design is also worth complimenting, given that the studio and house are both banal and ordinary enough to pass as normal, while taking on an increasingly creepy and ominous appearance as reality breaks down (I can't describe the effect apples swinging from string achieve, as lame as it sounds).

The performances and the writing are very sharp, with Sarah Greene showing a nice steely determination to protect the house's children even as she grows more and more terrified of the house and Michael Parkinson having a great arc from open-minded host to condescending bastard (when he believes he's exposed a hoax) to a confused and frustrated man unwilling to admit that reality is not what he thought it was.

There are a few mis-steps, mostly in the form of Craig Charles as the Odious Comic Relief who peppers his location-hosting duties with way too many jokes about how ridiculous Halloween and the supernatural are. He's a little too unprofessional to convince as a TV host and his tongue-in-cheek performance suggests there's some trickery afoot. It's a bit disappointing, given that I enjoyed him on "Red Dwarf", but he sticks out like a sore thumb here.

But despite a few laughs in the audience as Ghostwatch started up, by the end, everyone was shocked into silence. And we thought we were in on the joke.