Today's review is of something that is, very technically, not a movie, but a feature-length TV drama. However, it's considered (at least today, 24 years after its one-and-only broadcast) to be one of the first horror mockumentaries, and an influence on other cultural zeitgeists such as The Blair Witch Project. Furthermore, on a more personal note, it had a great effect on me - from my initial terror as a 13-year-old girl watching part of it and thinking it was real (as did a lot of the country), to being one of the events that really got me interested in things like this - found footage and mockumentaries and how they're presented and marketed to make them seem genuine, and how the viewing public's reactions feed further into this, making them seem all the more real. Welcome... to Ghostwatch.
It's Halloween, and the BBC have planned a special live broadcast for the night - a live investigation of what is said to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain. Well-known TV personalities Sarah Greene, Craig Charles, Mike Smith and - manning the studio - Michael Parkinson are all hosting this investigation into the supernatural, along with experts in both the paranormal and skeptics to offer opposing views. The house in question is a normal-looking semi-detached house in a London suburb that's become host to a whole bevy of poltergeist activity, a lot of it focusing on the two young daughters in the house, Suzanne and Kimmy. The ghost is known as "Pipes", because at the beginning of the haunting their mother had tried to explain away the noises as just the pipes banging. As the live broadcast continues, viewers to the show ring in with various stories about previous tenants of the house, from an 19th century baby farmer to a disturbed transvestite who hanged himself in the house and wasn't found for some time, during which his dozens of cats ate part of his face, and the supernatural activity increases to a disturbing degree. Too late the show hosts realise that what they have done is create a nationwide seance, giving Pipes the power to enter every home to wreck havoc...
Ghostwatch was never meant to be thought of as "real". It was a Screen One production, had a cast list listed in the Radio Times, and when the show began it had a "Written By" credit at the very start. But a lot of people tuned in late, myself included, and so missed the signs that this was fictional. So when the mammaries started pointing upwards and the feces impacted with the fan, an awful lot of us freaked the fuck out, convinced that we were seeing something real. To make matters worse, a lot of people turned off before the end so that they didn't see the credits at the end (on Monday morning, the one girl in my class who had seen it through to the end was considered something of a hero, and had to give plot recaps for most of the day). Effectively, this was the British version of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast - there weren't quite riots reported in the streets, but there were a lot of complaints, and Ghostwatch was blamed for the death of at least one person by suicide and listed as a cause of post-traumatic stress disorder in children (speaking for myself, I couldn't sleep for three days after seeing it and to this day I find it difficult to watch it at night or alone, and this is despite knowing exactly how it was made and all the behind the camera tricks). It was banned from ever being shown on TV for a decade, and even though it has since been released on DVD it has never been shown on British TV since.
One of the reasons (I think, at least) that Ghostwatch ended up being so creepily successful was the way in which it hid "Pipes" in shots throughout the programme - not quite subliminal imagery but certainly enough to make you do a few double-takes. They even play with this idea at the very beginning, with a clip in which the viewers can all see a shadowy figure slowly appear standing in the girls' bedroom - but when the footage is played back, the figure doesn't appear, making us question if we're actually seeing ghosts or if its just our imaginations running wild. The sound of the ghostly cats who accompany Pipes as he gains power is also incredibly unnerving, and the fact that all the faces involved in this were well-known British TV personalities (Sarah Green in particular was a children's TV presenter at the time) make the audience feel much closer to them and more likely to believe in what's happening to them.
Today, of course, Ghostwatch is very dated, and the sheer fact that it was touted as a live broadcast in 1992 means that it's simply not going to capture the same belief that it did back then. It was also based on the infamous Enfield Poltergeist case of the 1970s, and because of films like The Conjuring 2 people are much more likely to see through it and recognise the story behind it than we were back in 1992. As a product of its time, though, it was both brilliand and scary as hell, and a huge influence on the mockumentary horror genre as we know it today.