My Piece: Ghostwatch (1992)

If you’ve been following my reviews for awhile, you’ll know that I maintain a healthy appreciation for found-footage and mockumentary horror. It’s a terrifically high hoop to shoot for if you’re trying to do it properly. Authenticity is always the absolute priority, realism and accuracy defining that fine line between expert execution, and the laziest route you can take for a film.

Works like Savageland (2015), Lake Mungo (2008), and The Tunnel (2011) are some of the best examples of how nigh indisputably fantastic a mockumentary horror film can be. Striving as concisely as possible to achieve pseudo-realism, the best of which producing content that grips the ever-loving shit out of the viewer. Captivation that you just can’t find anywhere else, captivation that incites tightness in the chest and an eerie fascination that’s just exclusive to a documentary format.

Ghostwatch, a ninety-minute horror piece broadcast on BBC1 on October 31st of 1992, stands shoulder to shoulder with each of the aforementioned films.

The premise of the mockumentary is that a live event is broadcast to BBC1 viewers, operating as an investigation into the seemingly supernatural activity being reported from a single mother in her home. The broadcast is regularly divided between live footage of a reporter team perusing the house and engaging with the occupants, and the BBC studio being hosted by Michael Parkinson, an actual BBC host at that time, and a paranormal expert eager to discover the truth.

On the surface, and I’m talking poster-level, this film doesn’t strike one as having much potential. You’d assume it to be some outdated direct-to-video piece without much in the way of substance. I’ll concede, I had been avoiding Ghostwatch for awhile, having no true insight to the content and only acquiring it via recommendations from other horror fanatics.

I’m absolutely pissed that I didn’t watch it sooner.

Ghostwatch is one of the most ahead-of-its-time products I’ve ever seen. It’s essentially Live PD (2016) but exceptionally and supernaturally unsettling. (For the record, if anyone knows where I can find an archive of Live PD episodes, I’d appreciate it immensely. I adored the show and since it was canceled it’s become even harder for me to find, worsening the fact that it was obviously a live show and doesn’t have blu-rays or anything.)

Predating the most iconic of horror mockumentaries, The Blair Witch Project (1999), I would say that about ninety percent of this film is the closest you could get to watching a mockumentary that, were you uninformed, you could think was real. So much so, in fact, that roughly thirty-thousand viewers called the BBC during and post Ghostwatch’s airing in anger and sheer fright.

Controversies have surrounded the film pertaining to an eighteen year-old’s suicide following five days after the broadcast, prepubescent children experiencing post-traumatic-stress-disorder, etc. The film was nearly retracted shortly before it was even initially broadcast, and to date has apparently never been re-run on UK television, instead attaining availability through free streaming and download on the Internet Archive, international stations and physical media.

The performances of Ghostwatch are strikingly realistic, not in every facet, but in enough that I was considerably impressed. Particularly with the performance of Mike Parkinson acting as himself, I found that he did an excellent job maintaining a professional and authentic composure in the supernatural atmosphere. To a degree that, frankly, I’ve never really seen before.

Nearly all other members of the cast follow suit, with a few exceptions. Primarily lacking were the performances of the two children, which I don’t necessarily lay blame for. I’ve found that adolescents rarely exhibit a realistic reaction to supernatural circumstances in media, and honestly you can only expect so high a standard in that regard. Their acting isn’t egregious, however, I would just say mildly distracting from the immersive experience.

With any other questionable performances, I think it can be somewhat debated. I think it adds to authenticity in the sense that reporters would likely prepare third party subjects to some degree before airing them. But maybe that’s just an excuse I tell myself for less-than-authentic performance; Like I said, debatable.

Beyond that, Ghostwatch excels in nigh all respects. Editing is almost perfect, I don’t think production could get any more accurate than delivered, effects are subtle while retaining an advanced level of execution for its time, and the script is obviously fucking amazing.

Where I would have to dock points, so to speak, is the ending to the film. Roughly the last five to ten minutes. I’ll avoid spoilers given how highly I recommend you watch this, but I think they took the script overboard in a way that was blatantly unbelievable, even for a supernatural direction and a production that held its share of suspension of disbelief. I would’ve very much preferred they keep the program within the bounds of being a broadcast. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, and to be fair it’s also quite chilling in its own respect. Just not the path I would’ve chosen, and as always, I don’t know best.

In closing, Ghostwatch, written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning, serves as a beautiful example of how involved and engaging a mockumentary horror film can be, and is a must-have addition to any horror fanatic’s collection.

That’s My Piece.

If you’d like to watch or download Ghostwatch and see for yourself, you can find it on the Internet Archive here.

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