British Horror Cult Classic Club: Ghostwatch

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As serious Anglophiles - that's people who are heavily into British culture, not some kind of white power thing - Jef With One F and I will be taking a look at some lesser-known British films this month. As the month happens to be October, they will all be horror films. We'll examine and discuss them for your education and general betterment. Cheerio.

The thing you must understand about Ghostwatch is that it was essentially the Orson Welles broadcast of War of the Worlds of its day. To put this in perspective for American audiences who aren't likely to know any of these English newscasters: imagine, if you will, a very special live edition of 60 Minutes. Everything proceeds normally at first, but then Steve Kroft is knocked unconscious by furniture thrown by no one, Lesley Stahl gets sucked into a dark corner to her apparent demise, and Morley Safer stares off into the distance and chants while the studio disintegrates around him.


Though it was identified as a work of fiction early on in the show, people tuning in late saw only actual reporters and newscasters they knew and trusted bringing them a special investigation just like any other... until it wasn't. People calling in to the show would receive a recorded message telling them that he show was fictional... but of course the phone lines jammed immediately, and almost no one got through. This aired on October 31, 1992, before cable television was ubiquitous and everyone more or less watched the same network shows every night; because of this, it caused hysteria in England on an enormous level. Ghostwatch was so successful it was banned from being shown on English television for a full decade, and although they ban has been lifted, it has yet to air again.

JSG: If you were watching this live the day it aired and had missed the notice about it being fictional, would you have cottoned on that it was staged? If so, at what part in the film?

JEF: Part of me says that you could never pull this off again, but then again... Look, there are essentially two types of people. People who believe you when you send them an email saying Pepsi is made of aborted fetuses and those who don't. For me, the second the camera, which was supposed to be stationary, pulled to the right so we wouldn't see stage hands throwing things at the little girls was the moment that took me right out of any sort of belief.

On the other hand it is so amazingly British and stodgy, the whole thing. That really helped sell it because you can totally expect this sort of reaction from the BBC. I thought it was the most realistic part of the program.

JSG: Absolutely, the tone was perfect. Did you pause it at 19:56 to better see the awful things written / drawn in the daughter's notebook? It's okay to admit it. I did. And I have to say, even with British television's more relaxed "adult content" policies... that's pushing it a bit.

JEF: Nah, it was 1992. How many people were honestly going to be taping it and going back to check out the writing for three or four seconds of videos? All I saw was blood, blood, blood. Don't you think it was odd for a ghost to manifest itself by basically being a dirty bastard? Is that the afterlife?

JSG: Look on the page to the right. You can only glimpse it for a split second, but I'm not even sure I'd be permitted to describe it here. Moving on, you can spot the ghost a total of eight times throughout the film. If you want to know exactly where, head over to the film's Wikipedia entry. Were you able to spot him without cheating?

JEF: I did honestly get scared when I saw him in the curtains. It was a pretty subtle thing. What did you think of the voice?

JSG: The voice was very effective when they played the EVP recording in studio. Whoever did the voice acting and sound editing for that piece made Pipes the Ghost's voice completely fucking terrifying. And the silhouette of the ghost himself appearing behind Dr. Pascoe didn't help. I also thought the voice was effective coming from the little girl, and then of course there at the end.

Seriously, how cool is it that they had an actor get into full costume and makeup and then made him stand in places where maybe one out of 100 people watching from home would see him?

JEF: Oh, David Lynch does that sort of thing all the time. It's a much more subtle effect than anything I would have expected for the time period, and in many ways I think you can honestly see the sort of things that are now staples of modern ghost films.

JSG: I totally agree, this is decades before the current "found footage" boom, and beat The Blair Witch Project to the punch by seven years. In the film, we had reporters who, for the most part, weren't really actors doing their best to convince us. Name your best and worst newscaster actors. Also, how do you think the rest of the cast did? Any cringe moments for you, acting-wise?

JEF: You know what made it all weird for me? Craig Charles is in this. How the hell am I supposed to be scared with Dave Lister in the freakin' room? No, I think they did a pretty good job, honestly. I totally bought Sarah Greene's reactions.

JSG: It actually wouldn't have been unusual at all to see Craig Charles in such a role; he was a very popular presenter and panelist by then. I thought his segment was great, with the two neighborhood ladies passive-aggressively giving him the stinkeye for being such a wiseass. But yeah, I thought the news people were pretty natural actors, especially Parkinson. Parky always delivers. Now, put yourself in the shoes of an audience member on Halloween night, 1992. You're absolutely convinced that what you've seen is real: you've taken part in a mass séance and now ghosts are loose in England. What the hell do you do about it?

JEF: Probably freak the hell out until the next program came on. That's what would have been really wicked... if the BBC had left like an hour worth of programming afterwards completely blank except maybe with occasional weird noises or flashed images or something. Not only would it have sold the idea even more, they would probably be the first people ever to glue an audience to a blank screen.

JSG: Oh my God, that would have been fantastic. And now the question everyone's been waiting for: who would win in a fight, the Blair Witch or Pipes?

JEF: The Witch. She had those little sticks.

Now, obligatory Doctor Who reference. Did you know that Ghostwatch returned when the Cybermen were posing as dead spirits in an episode in Season 2?

JSG: I did not know that! Thanks for spoiling it.

That's all for this week. Join us next time for a look at another cult classic from our chums across the pond.

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