Friday, 16 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: Ghostwatch (1992)

Director: Lesley Manning
Screenplay: Stephen Volk
Cast: Michael Parkinson; Sarah Greene; Mike Smith; Craig Charles; Gillian Bevan

Synopsis: On Halloween night 1992, a special live program on the BBC intends to document real paranormal activity at the residence of a divorced woman (Brid Brennan) and her two daughters (Michelle and Cherise Wesson). Hosted by Michael Parkinson, with former Blue Peter presenter Sarah Greene inside the house with the family, and Red Dwarf Craig Charles interviewing the locals outside, the homestead has been said to be plagued by various poltergeist phenomena such as destruction of property, strange noises and scratches suddenly appearing on the older daughter's face and neck. With paranormal scientist Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) in the studio with Parkinson, it becomes increasingly apparent that the ghost dubbed "Pipes" is more than originally bargained for. Phone calls from viewers inform the show of a much darker history to the house being investigated for all the prank calls the show also gets, and it becomes more apparent whatever force is contained in the house it's far more powerful than perceived.

Continuing a Nigel Kneale theme, this work of acclaim and infamy was originally meant to be a mini-series, culminating narratively in a Quatermass and The Pit (1967) style ending. Instead of this the planned final episode set in a BBC studio during a "live" programme became the notorious and beloved TV movie called Ghostwatch. Ghostwatch is actually bookmarked by credits informing the viewing that its fictitious, but that didn't stop it from scaring the bejesus out of the audience and causing a scandal for the press. The premise is ingenious even now in the more technologically advanced modern day with reality television shows about haunted houses, the execution of making it look like an actual BBC television production perfect. From the lines of people taking calls from the viewers to the spooky set design in the show within the film, it looks aesthetically accurate to the type of programming found on the BBC during the mid-nineties. Instead of a normal narrative style, making the story centre around a fictitious broadcast is refreshing still and still allows for every important point to be placed carefully.

The conviction of making Ghostwatch be as realistic as possible goes as far as the casting of real hosts and stars of BBC programming alongside actors playing fictitious roles. This may not translate as well to non-British viewers or those who didn't grow with some of the people cast on their television screens, but it adds a lot to the material having some knowledge of them. Michael Parkinson is a beloved figure on British television, especially as a talk show host, a figure known for his wit but also having an affable aura around him of an older gentleman or a grandfather, his scepticism of what could be happening, and how he works around the prank calls and increasing problems visibly taken from real verisimilitude of working on television as a host. To see him potentially in the midst of a horrifying discovery would've as much of a shock for viewers as it would've been if this was created in the USA rather than Britain and Johnny Carson was cast in the role. Casting the real life couple of Sarah Greene and the late Mike Smith has the added significance that, knowing they were married, the friendly teasing of each other early in the programme has a clear sense of real emotion to it, as does the fear Smith shows when his wife may be in peril alongside the family and the camera team with her. Finally as the sarcastic, comic foil who doesn't take the haunting seriously at all,  Craig Charles is more than appropriate as the laddish, loud personality who just skirts being obnoxious. Someone who I grew up with in Red Dwarf and as the presenter of Robot Wars when he replaced Jeremy Clarkson, he could've easily played the same role in a slasher film as a prankster character.

The supernatural content of Ghostwatch is still as strong today. It begins with a suitably eerie tone - seeing the recorded evidence from Dr. Pascoe of what has already taken place in the house - and progresses to something even worse than even she could've envisioned, the story going as far as tackling very adult and transgressive ideas as it reveals who Pipes might actually be. The framing device of the live television show adds many layers, not only blurring the lines of reality, including a real phone number shown continually onscreen that eventually became besieged by calls during the 1992 screening, but allows the plot points to be brought up very organically. The fictional audience phones the show very early on claiming they've seen a ghostly figure in a piece of archival footage shown, adding tension and mystery immensely, and the general interaction between the in-studio show and the on-location house changes how the story is told with immense grace.

Then, without spoiling it for the uninitiated, the film starts to bring in an implication straight from a Quatermass story where the technology for the TV show itself becomes a harbinger of a greater, unknown power. As the realisations of what is going on only sink in even for the paranormal scientist, suggested continually in clues throughout the show, it eventually ends with a suitably unsettling, open ended finish. That Michael Parkinson is at the centre of the final few minutes makes it more disturbing for anyone who grew up with him, the steward of Saturday night television in a finale that not only reflects back on the Quatermass films but looks forward to what the Japanese would do in depicting ghosts and technology, as close in the end to the likes of Ringu (1998) and Pulse (2001) as it is to classic ghost stories.

Technical Details:
Alongside the framing device  depicting the story as a "live" production, this predates films like My Little Eye (2002) and found footage movie like Paranormal Activity (2007) with its use of various different types of cameras. As a live show, cameras are set up throughout the house offering various ways to depict the narrative but also adding to the fear of what could take place, as does having a cameraman with Sarah Greene who is just as vulnerable. Naturally, bringing in new technology for the movie as much as for the show within the story, there's tools such as infra-red capabilities that are brought up with the meaning of Chekhov's Gun. These various cameras, as props, are used in very interesting ways, more so when the technology itself becomes centre of the finale, being used as much to play tricks on the viewer as it does the participants in the live show within.

Abstract Spectrum: None
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing to report.

Personal Opinion:
The testament to how good Ghostwatch is, its story timeless and the technological details easy to update for another time period, is that you could remake this for the modern day. As long as the ideas by writer Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning weren't compromised, you would still have a powerful little tale. Whether it would affect an audience now, causing some to believe it was real or to at least enrage the Daily Mail newspaper, is debatable but that wouldn't diminish how good it is. I certainly wasn't old enough to have seen Ghostwatch during its first and only BBC screening, and I went into it knowing of its back-story, so instead I take away not only how good it is but how its infamy actually adds to this quality.

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