Ghostwatch

4 out of 5

Directed by: Stephen Volk

Did you know about Ghostwatch?  Come on now; no reason to lie.  If you weren’t a BBC kid, I’d be skeptical.  But watching this faux-“live” ghost show – made in 1992 – that posits investigating a haunted house by setting up cameras in each room along with a roving camera man who drops and shakes the camera at opportune times to (indirectly) prevent us from getting directly exposed to the spooks, it’s less than a hop, skip and jump to see the inspirations for Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, and thus the slew of flicks that occurred in the handheld wake… which certainly asks: why don’t more of us know about Ghostwatch?

Lack of availability for one, as I believe it still hasn’t had a full-on home release; that it was a UK offering is certainly the other, with nil exposure here in the US.  It did indeed have quite an impact o’er there, netting a War of the Worlds effect for those tuning in after the opening credits and assuming it was real.  And to its immense, four-star credit, up until it pushes things a bit too far at the end (although entertainingly spooky), it’s absolutely easy to buy this as a VHS-era TV live special, with the kind of clumsy cuts and filler banter that would make the hour-long build-up to the creep outs kind of a snooze if not for Ghostwatch’s masterstroke of layering in visual tricks that flash images of the featured ghost (Pipes) before he starts to more brashly menace the family in the house.  This slightly off vibe, which is akin to Paranormal’s “hunt for the haunt” effect that has us studying boring frames of non-motion for forty minutes, is bolstered by the dedication to the presentation: the slightly clunky interviewer / guest format and stumbly family interviews all promote this weird mix of humor and unease, like you’re not sure if this is going exactly the way it’s supposed to.  The little tics in the performances; the seemingly mis-remembered dialogue; that silly set; they can’t possibly be expecting us to take this seriously, can they?  …Which is why you end up transfixed with a half-smile, watching it unfold, fitfully.  All this significantly increases the rewatch value of the thing, which is certainly the main downfall of most found footage flicks.

Of course, the thing to accept is that there’s no way this would be as enjoyable if produced today, even if made to mimic the 90s quality video and pre-internet awareness personalities.  It’s hard to push Ghostwatch on anyone as something to freak them out, as opposed to a surprising relic of which they may not be aware.  But if that can all be factored in, it flips the script and manages to be pretty effective, almost because you’re expecting it not to be, all unassuming with a kindly host in a TV studio, and we’ve seen this all before, yeah?  We have, and often it’s rather uninspired.  So step back 25 years, settle comfortably into nostalgia, and then get the heebie-jeebies when exposed to one of the original, inspired takes on a genre.

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