Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, and Michael Parkinson in 1992's "Ghostwatch."

Ghostwatch October 20, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Lesley Manning

STARRING

Michael Parkinson
Sarah Greene
Mike Smith
Craig Charles
Gillian Bevan
Keith Ferrari

RATED

NR

RELEASED IN

1992

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 31 Mins.

I

t’s easy to see how Ghostwatch (1992) could incite the kind of mass hysteria that would make it a latter-day analog to Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. Despite a banner stamping its fictionhood, many were fooled into thinking this BBC special — which visually and narratively mimics a live news broadcast and is chaired by real-life TV personalities Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith,

and others playing themselves — was real and not merely a tricky edition of the British anthology series Screen One

 

In Ghostwatch, "Parkinson" and his cohort are hosting a Halloween-themed special. They’re covering, live, Greene-led efforts to investigate Britain’s supposedly most haunted house all night long. The action moves back and forth between Greene and her team — who are basically guesting at the house of the family unlucky enough to be living there to catch evidence of the paranormal — and Parkinson in the studio. There, he sits with Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), a parapsychologist who previously investigated the house and its effect on its current inhabitants. A playing-himself Mike Smith, in the meantime, leads call-in efforts where viewers are welcomed to ask questions and potentially provide helpful-to-the-case insights. 
   

Of course, this seasonally germane very special episode doesn’t end up paying off as harmlessly as these fictionalized versions of Parkinson, Greene, and the like might have thought. Because Ghostwatch moves in a genuinely frightening direction even for viewers aware of the context of its making, you quickly get how clueless viewers at home had a hard time keeping their shit together thinking the ever-likable Greene actually had a deadly run-in with the ghost.
   

Looking to avoid another case of hysteria from the public — encapsulated beautifully by the fact that literally a million viewers, thinking the telethon component of the film was authentic, attempted to call in — BBC has never again broadcasted Ghostwatch. (Even though, thanks to its visual style and the cast’s sartorial choices, the coast is probably clear.) An official copy of the movie remains relatively hard to find; god bless Internet Archive, which uploaded a clear-enough copy to its encyclopedic server in 2017. 
 

Ghostwatch’s blacklisted quality only heightens the good time, paralleling the latter-day found-footage horror movies indebted to it. (Which, strictly in terms of media hubbub, comes closest in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.) It’s more than worth seeking out, not merely for the novelty of its format but also the agile, studied execution of it. Its writer, Stephen Volk, proficiently recreates the comforting banalities of a live news broadcast only to turn them on their head. Director Lesley Manning also is careful about avoiding the overwrought and other cues that might instantaneously indicate this is fiction and not really a broadcast. 
 

It’s surprising Ghostwatch’s conceit hasn’t been recycled more often; maybe that has something to do with how hard it is to pin down. WNUF Halloween Special (2013) notably tried, switching the setting to a 1987 local newscast and also included faux period-accurate commercials. It's probably better if you saw it, like me, before you did Ghostwatch: it'll seem a lot more novel that way. A