Apr 25, 2012


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time. 

Dir. Lesley Manning
United Kingdom

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!" Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian; it's Halloween."
- Orson Welles' on-air apology following
 his War of the Worlds broadcast; 
October 30, 1938

Running BBC's 1992 Ghostwatch program for this entry of Unsung Horrors is kind of a cheat for several reasons. First, while I try to feature films reasonably recent, Ghostwatch will turn twenty years old this coming Halloween. Second, its notoriously hard to find. If you've got a region-free DVD  player and deep pockets, then you should be able to order the DVD from Amazon UK fairly easily. Finally, Ghostwatch isn't very unsung. Considering its extremely limited audience and near impossibility to find, it has a wealth of fans. People who have seen it love it and eagerly share stories of how it left them utterly terrified. It's because of this that I couldn't resist running an appreciation of this incredibly eerie and effective film. 

Shot and edited weeks in advance to its air date, Ghostwatch is presented as a live on-air special that spotlights an alleged haunted house on Foxhill Drive in London. The host of this show is Michael Parkinson, a well known (and quite real) British journalist. Next to him sits Dr. Lin Pascoe, a parapsychologist who fervently believes that the spooky events occurring at Foxhill Drive are genuine signs of a haunting. And in the cursed house live the Early family; mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim. Much like modern ghost-hunting shows of today, a camera crew enters the house to investigate the events the Early family claim to have been dealing with for months. Leading this crew is Sarah Greene, another well-known British personality. Sure enough, the house is haunted for real, and as the investigation unfolds, the events within the house steadily increase into utter chaos.

While the crux of Ghostwatch is built around the events occurring inside the house at Foxhill Drive, the power of the story comes from all the different sources of information used throughout the film. Michael Parkinson and Dr. Pascoe provide much of the exposition and background on the investigation, and because they are on a "live" on-air show, they frequently patch in phone calls from "audience members" who share either their own ghostly encounters, or provide even more information about the Foxhill Drive house previously unknown. What this does is add to the legend of the specter haunting the house, and with each new detail, the events become more and more creepy. Think Blair Witch: The first half of that film is the kids gathering information, and the only spooky goings-on are married to stories told by locals and experts. Ghostwatch operates the same way.

The awful thing causing all this havoc is Pipes the ghost, the name derived by the Early children after the first few times their mother had claimed the weird noises they were hearing were caused by their water pipes banging beneath their walls. Over the course of the last few months, Pipes made his presence quite well known, focusing most of his wrath on young Suzanne. The few scarce sightings we have of Pipes, along with eyewitness accounts of the young children, paint a very chilling image of him in our mind, but it's at the very end when Pipes' true origins are revealed is when the film is at its most frightening. The filmmakers do a great job of teasing you with brief sightings of Pipes, but never long enough to give you a full, detailed glimpse of how he actually appears. Brief images of him are scattered throughout, and while the film today can be paused, or slowed down frame-by-frame, twenty years ago the audience had no such options; they watched it unfolding "live" on their televisions, and the brief sightings of him were made to induce moments of "did I just see that?"

Pipes is described as having a skull-like and bald head, a scratched face, and one bloodied eye. He wears a black dress with large buttons running down the middle (the explanation for which is eventually provided), and sightings of him seem to be accompanied by the shrill howls of cats. The image enough is unnerving on its own, but once we find out the ghost's real name, his origins, and how he possibly might have come to be, it becomes much more so.

Your pranksters.

Ghostwatch plays out in real time, darting back and forth between the live feed in the house and the studio. Every actor handles their part with ease, from those playing different people to those playing versions of themselves; all the performances come across as very genuine. Despite the more lurid attacks young Suzanne endures, or the terror Sarah Greene finds herself facing, it's Michael Parkinson that has the most interesting role; his performance is incredibly realistic, in that it suggests he doesn't take much of what Dr. Pascoe and the Early family are telling him all that seriously, but is willing to go along with it for the sake of journalistic objectivity. Being a real journalist, he knows he cannot let his own prejudices cloud his attempts to tell a story.

Ghostwatch remained unavailable on home video for ten years after its airing for quite an interesting and unfortunate reason: Despite the film running during the same time slot that a popular (and scripted) BBC series called "Screen One" usually ran, despite the program being preceded by a "written by" credit, and despite the call-in number provided during the program stating that the program callers were watching was a work of fiction, certain members of Ghostwatch's viewing audience thought it was real, and it really fucked with their minds; from the revealed origins of Pipes to the in-studio phone calls made by "audience members" experiencing weird occurrences in their own home seemly caused by the events in the program - they bought it all: hook, line, and sinker. 

And while any writer who crafted such a project might say, "Then I've done my job!" he probably didn't count on, hope for, or expect the effect it would have on some lesser-stabled viewers:
18-year-old factory worker Martin Denham, who suffered from learning difficulties and had a mental age of 13, committed suicide five days after the programme aired. The family home had suffered with a faulty central heating system which had caused the pipes to knock; Denham linked this to the activity in the show causing great worry. He left a suicide note reading "if there are ghosts I will be ... with you always as a ghost." His mother and stepfather, April and Percy Denham, blamed the BBC. They claimed that Martin was "hypnotised and obsessed" by the programme. The Broadcasting Standards Commission refused their complaint, along with 34 others, as being outside their remit, but the High Court granted the Denhams permission for a judicial review requiring the BSC to hear their complaint. (Wiki.)
And so, following such controversy, any future broadcasts of the program were pulled, and for ten years it remained unavailable on home video. A ten-year anniversary VHS and DVD were issued but are now out of print.

Part of me wishes I had been a London native while watching Ghostwatch for the first time. I'm sure the power of the film's realism is enforced when seeing the likes of Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles all dealing with the paranormal activity in very different ways - because they are all real people; very well-known television and media personalities playing victimized and scared versions of themselves. An American equivalent of the cast might have Regis Philbin (but perhaps someone with a bit more esteem) as the host, with any assortment of other well-known personalities filling out the cast of the studio crew. Perhaps Kelly Rippa as Sarah Greene, since I just opened that door. Then again, the familiarity of them might destroy the illusion that what we're seeing is real. Maybe it's best that I had no idea who any of these TV personalities were until after I watched the film and did a bit of research.

I love Ghostwatch for many reasons, but most of all, I love it because it was planned, written, and executed simply to have something fun to play on Halloween night. Normal scripted shows will often incorporate Halloween into one of their plots, much like "The Simpsons" continues to do with their annual Treehouse of Horror episodes; "Ghost Adventures" and "Ghost Hunters" will perform a "live" investigation to honor the dark night. But you hardly ever see a program being created from scratch to pay tribute to October 31st. It feels like a perfect melded concoction of paint-by-numbers television and reality - and all to give viewers something a little spooky to watch as they put to bed another Halloween night. I'd love for a major network to put something like this together - to concoct a Ghostwatch of their own. Found footage has never been more popular than it is right now, and with the format being applied to television with the likes of "The River" and "The Lost Tapes," I'm surprised this program hasn't been snapped up for some kind of Americanization. Is it because we've become jaded towards Halloween? Do American studios instead want to focus on seeing a Halloween-themed episode of "The Kardashians" as each of the spoiled divas dress like a slutty witch and say something inherently racist?

Ghostwatch has become annual and essential Halloween viewing in my home. If you're able to find it, I'm sure it'll become a part of yours, too.

Read a retrospective article on Ghostwatch and its legacy - recollected by the cast and crew.

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