DVD Movie Review: Ghostwatch (1992)

ghostwatch-3-presentersGhost in the machine

Twenty-one years ago, on Halloween (31 October) 1992 I, along with a large portion of the British viewing public, was taken in (a la The War of the Worlds, as it was written and first broadcast on radio by Orson Welles on 30 October 1938) by Ghostwatch (1992), a British ‘mockumentary’ that was made before the term was even properly coined.

Regular readers of my reviews will know that horror is my favourite genre, and it was then as well so, with my university house-mates, I duly tuned in to the Beeb at the appointed time, genuinely excited about what I/we thought was going to be a genuine investigation into a genuinely haunted house in Northolt, London.

The show, as the title indicates, was set up like a Crimewatch investigation, and featured none other than Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith as its anchormen in the studio, with other stars of the time Sarah Greene (wife of Smith) and Craig Charles among the intrepid ‘ghost hunters’ on location at the house.

It was also supposedly being broadcast live, with the traditional ‘call us with your supernatural experiences’ number advertised to viewers. The family involved, a recently divorced mother and her two young daughters, had seemingly been beset by poltergeist activity caused by ‘Pipes’, the nickname that the children had given to the alleged entity, because of its tendency to bang and rattle the house’s plumbing system, but there had also been more frightening phenomena witnessed, such as scars covering the face of the elder daughter and levitations of objects.

In fact, the show had been recorded weeks in advance, both in the studio and on location at the house – initial callers to the program’s number were informed that the broadcast was fiction and were invited to share their own ghostly experiences but, such were the number of calls made (around 30,000 in just one hour) to the BBC (the number was the standard BBC call-in number at the time, 081 811 8181, which was also used on programs such as Going Live!), that subsequent callers were greeted only by an engaged tone, which only added to the sense that the show was for real.

Needless to say, the broadcast caused huge controversy, and to date has never been repeated in the UK, though a DVD is now available. Truth be told, as I was watching it for the first time, I began to get the sneaking suspicion that, while Parkinson, Greene, Smith and Charles all seemed to be for real, the utterances of the on-show ‘expert’, the mother and her two daughters had the feel of being somewhat scripted.

Thankfully, I dispelled such doubts fairly quickly, and that was only for the good, because the genuine descent into nightmare that follows worked so much better for feeling like the real thing. And, having now acquired it for myself on DVD, I can say that upon second viewing Ghostwatch stands as one of the very finest pieces of TV horror ever produced, with hand-held camerawork, subliminal flashes of the ‘ghost’ and a real sense of mounting dread.

In fact,  it was written by Stephen Volk, directed by Lesley Manning, and was produced for the BBC anthology series Screen One – this information had been already provided to viewers but, such was the credibility of its set-up, with front cover of the Radio Times and prime-time advertising of the show as a genuine investigation, that excited viewers didn’t bother to check the details closely enough – we all wanted to believe.

So, dim the lights, suspend disbelief, and watch it for yourself here – you will never see its like again. Heh, heh, heh.

91 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Dead of Night: The Exorcism (1972)

Exorcism2Guess who’s coming to dinner?

We go back to the BBC’s golden age of TV spookiness here, with Don Taylor‘s The Exorcism (1972), which itself was the first episode of seven in Dead of Night, a supernatural series made when the macabre was still taken seriously, and the actors involved played it absolutely straight. Ah, happy days – sadly, only three of the original series survive in the BBC’s archives, but at least this is one of them and, along with Peter Sasdy‘s The Stone Tape (1972) (which was originally intended to form part of the same series, but was eventually broadcast as a one-off Christmas Day special in 1972) is among the very best horror ever made for the glass teat.

Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper) have invited Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay) to their eminently desirable new country home for Christmas dinner – proud of his new abode, which he had done up from the very old and run-down country dwelling that it was originally, Edmund tells Dan that he got the place for ‘at least fifty quid, but not much more’ (rar-rar-rar), before Clive opines that anyway, he wants to be ‘a rich socialist’. It’s all rather irritatingly smug, and the tone continues when the four sit down for dinner. But then…the lights go out, the phone goes dead, Edmund is convinced that his wine has turned to blood, and all four suffer violent illness when they taste the turkey. Things are about to get mighty strange, mighty quickly…

Taylor, who also wrote this, originally worked primarily for radio, and it shows here, but in a very good way. The scares, when they come (and believe me, they do), are far more aural than visual – you really have the sense of being as trapped as the four unfortunates are, and their supernatural captors have a more-than reasonable point to make. True, the social commentary dimension of the scares is laid on somewhat heavily, but the skill of the writing, suggestiveness of the atmosphere and genuine sense of impending doom that the story creates are near-matchless.

A truly scary step back in time, and many thanks to the rather fine website British Horror Television for their excellent background on The Exorcism.

50 mins.

Cinema Movie Review: The Woman in Black (2012)

Woman in BlackSuffer the children

I go way back with The Woman in Black. First, knowing that it was adapted from Susan Hill‘s classic spine-tingler, I watched the really rather brilliant 1988 Nigel Kneale-written TV-movie adaptation of the same, then saw the stage play (amazing), then read the book (everything I expected) and now, with much trepidation before so doing, I have watched the Daniel Radcliffe-starring, James Watkins-directed film. And…

…I by and large only have very good things to report. As all aficionados of the work of M.R. James will know, the very best ghosts are not those who flit around in white sheets going ‘woo-wooh’, but rather those who are malevolent, and have very specific, deadly agendas against the living.

After all, why should they not? They’re dead, aren’t they, and that must be a real downer, and if the living have made them thus, what are they going to do? What would you do?

So we join young Arthur Kipps, a late 19th-century lawyer who is also a widower – his wife died in childbirth, delivering their son whom Kipps adores, but who is having trouble keeping, given that he is on his final warning at his law firm. His boss tells him that a trip to the remote town of Crythin Gifford, to sort out the affairs of the recently deceased Alice
Drablow, owner of Eel Marsh House, may be his last chance to save his position and so Kipps, having no choice, travels to the town, and into a nightmare.

And that’s it for spoilers, as this is very much a tale I would like you to discover on your own. Suffice only to say that the titular black-dressed femme fatale (and believe me, she is all that) has a very specific grudge against the little ones of Crythin Grifford, and Kipps is running a very serious risk of falling into her web.

As I said earlier, deadly ghosts are by far the best, and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, which like her predecessors’ attempts adapts and improves on the premise of Hill’s original novel, brings out the very best in Watkins’ talented cast. There was perhaps a wish on the part of this reviewer for a few more screams (as the 1988 version delivered unbelievably well, including one shock-cut that is perhaps the scariest in all cinema, I kid you not), but this is nevertheless the most subtle, intelligent chill-fest you will see in some time. Brrrrr.

95 mins.