The infamous BBC classic invades US screens courtesy of 101 Films
There’s only one event comparable to the night in 1938 that Orson Welles fooled America into thinking the planet was under invasion by Martians–and that’s the night a team of beloved BBC presenters led unsuspecting viewers to believe they were broadcasting from the most haunted house in Britain.
Ghostwatch, which featured presenters Michael “Parky” Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles, aired only once on Halloween night in 1992. Despite a very-much-missed Screen One fictional disclaimer at the start of the program, the program’s realistic descent into horror and madness resulted in terrified backlash and outcry from viewers. Tabloids and talk shows seized upon the chaos in a media feeding frenzy; Ghostwatch was blamed for traumatized children and even a case of reactionary suicide. The about-face from the BBC was swift, with public apologies by top brass–despite the unapologetic defense of the program by its creators and participants, including Parkinson himself. Even though it took another three years before official censorship by the Broadcasting Standards Council, Ghostwatch’s reputation was already cemented as a one-off horror classic that would be locked in the BBC vaults forevermore.
For its credit, writer Stephen Volk, director Lesley Manning, and their stellar cast seize every opportunity to either unnerve their viewers or distort their view of reality. In real-time, clocks stop and things go bump in the night amidst the tedium of waiting for something to jump out of the shadows. Cheery and polite Halloween cheer slowly gives way to creeping dread as a re-played video causes previously-unseen specters to appear out of thin air. Or do they? Was it a trick of the light? One can never be sure…it’s live, so there’s no way for viewers to play it back themselves. Is that shadow really Pipes making himself known? Who’s that figure in the back of the crowd of onlookers? By the film’s end, the full extent of the paranormal phenomena has reached epic, all-consuming proportions–with thanks especially given to viewers like you.
Standing among fellow faux-horror legend Cannibal Holocaust, Ghostwatch is the Godfather of ghostly found-footage horror. Like Deodato’s film, Ghostwatch was able to convince the greater public of its authenticity; however, it still remains that Volk and Manning’s film was the first to do so en masse and in real-time. Its terror went disturbingly unchallenged by reality in an era before the internet and smartphones could put such frightening possibilities quickly to rest. Given the era of “Video Nasties” censorship that preceded Ghostwatch’s airing, which saw Cannibal Holocaust, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre removed or blocked from British shelves, Ghostwatch’s transmission feels like a wonderfully subversive happy accident. Per the special features on 101 Films’ excellent new Blu-ray, the intent of the production seems to have completely slipped by the heads of the BBC–somehow oblivious to the impact that a host on par with Walter Cronkite or Mister Rogers being possessed on “live TV” might have on the public.
The subsequent suppression of the film has fittingly acted as a pressure cooker for its reputation. The impact of Ghostwatch’s sole airing festered in the impressionable minds of its viewers, who would go on to be future tastemakers and icons in Horror. The worldwide success of The Blair Witch Project, the relaxation of film censorship attitudes in the UK, and the proliferation of reality TV provided fertile opportunity for Ghostwatch to break free from its archival prison in 2002, when the film was finally released on DVD by the BFI. Whether by its original broadcast or its rediscovery ten years later, the film inspired other found footage classics like Lake Mungo, Paranormal Activity, and Host–all of which equally dare to use a mélange of media formats in an attempt to commune with the otherworldly…to insidious and deadly ends.
Now, 101 Films has made this landmark moment in found footage history finally available for discovery by U.S. audiences for the first time. This exquisitely put-together package culls together a wealth of print and digital special features, including all of the archival special features from the BFI’s UK DVD, as well as a newly-produced audio commentary and 30th-Anniversary behind-the-scenes featurette, in addition to recreations of the original shooting script and essays that are thought-provoking and provide essential context for American viewers. The centerpiece of the package is, of course, the film itself; with robust image and sound quality that greatly improves upon past releases without sacrificing its archival feel, this transfer of Ghostwatch feels unearthed from the BBC vaults like a secret kept for 30 years, wholly primed to unleash the horrifying Pipes and other nefarious demons in crystal-clear quality.
101 Films presents Ghostwatch in its original 1.33:1 format, pillarboxed for widescreen televisions. The original PAL TV broadcast has been upscaled to 1080i60 for US televisions and is accompanied by an English LPCM 2.0-channel Mono track. English subtitles are provided solely for the feature film.
While Ghostwatch’s original materials could never successfully be converted to high-definition video, the image quality of 101 Films’ new Blu-ray is a welcome jump from Ghostwatch’s hard-to-procure BFI DVD by a considerable margin. Textures and depth of field have increased detail, from patterns on characters’ jumpers, to the kitschy set design of Parkinson’s studio, to the crude auto-writing of Pipes in Suzanne’s school journal. Conversion from PAL to HD is mostly successful, with some moments of image ghosting and artifacting that seem inherent to the mixed-media source material as opposed to conversion between formats. Given how Ghostwatch plays with the idea of “ghosts in the machine,” the image’s fuzziness and unreliability does justice to the spirit of the material itself, evoking the feel of a retro-séance befitting its three-decade-delayed unveiling to U.S. audiences. No new sightings of Pipes have been found (yet), but one wouldn’t be surprised given the image quality that’s now available here.
Audio quality is uniformly serviceable for a period mono track, with clear dialogue and effects work amid the buzz and hum of era equipment. Moments like Pipes’ appearance on an audio recording or an intermittently interrupted studio/location feed are sonically chaotic yet retain relative clarity.
- 2022 Audio Commentary with film historians Shellie McMurdo and Stella Gaynor. This conversational commentary between McMurdo and Gaynor takes a unique position as both are O.G. Ghostwatch broadcast viewers as well as modern-day critics. Both delight in recounting their terrified reactions to their first-time viewings as well as providing context for British culture surrounding the original transmission.
- 2002 Audio Commentary with director Lesley Manning, writer Stephen Volk, and producer Ruth Baumgarten. This archival track dives more into the logistics of the original production, the cultural and in-studio politics that surrounded Ghostwatch’s production and controversial impact, and jovial stories from the shoot.
- “Do You Believe in Ghosts?”: A new 48-minute documentary about the conception, production, and legacy of Ghostwatch, created for the film’s 30th anniversary. Actors Sarah Greene and Gillian Bevan, director Lesley Manning, and writer Stephen Volk recount how the film managed to evade the more scrutinizing eyes at the BBC from its initial inception as a long-form series, to its reformatting as a single film aired on Halloween night. Also discussed are the challenges (and rewards) of translating these BBC presenters’ broadcast presentation styles to a scripted medium, utilizing newly-acquired thermal cameras and graphic transitions used in current BBC news stories, and meticulously coordinating the positioning of cast/crew in the limited space of the on-location house. Host filmmakers Robert Savage and Jed Shepherd join the cast and crew in discussing the immediate and lasting impact of Ghostwatch, from the incendiary public outcry against the program to its cementing as a hard-to-find ancestor of found footage horror.
- Shooting Reality: An archival featurette from the 2002 BFI release of Ghostwatch. Director Lesley Manning provides commentary over scans of her annotated script (w/ color-coded lines of what needed to be shot when to complete any video-overlaid scenes), hand-drawn storyboards, wardrobe and make-up photos of Keith Ferrari as the elusive Pipes, the film’s shooting schedule, floorplans of the Early house, prop newspapers, and letters from viewers.
- Limited Edition Booklet featuring essays by Sarah Appleton and Tim Murray, as well as a short story by Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk. Sarah Appleton’s Extra Sensory Perception Management investigates Ghostwatch’s origins as an interrogation of broadcast truth by writer Volk and the program’s subsequent controversy before contextualizing Ghostwatch among then-modern wartime reporting of the Gulf War, the growth of CCTV and “fake news,” and the found footage horror films that drew upon Ghostwatch for inspiration. Tim Murray’s Ghostwatch — As it Happened looks at the fact and fiction behind the legendary public reaction to Ghostwatch’s 1992 “live” broadcast, placing the film in the context of the “video nasties” censorship brigade, other notorious UK crimes that were public sensations, and naturally Orson Welles’ 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds. A postscript notes how the BBC was finally censured three years after Ghostwatch’s broadcast for “inadequate warnings and causing excessive fear and distress” in British viewers. It’s striking how visceral the reactions to Ghostwatch were at the time; while more contemporary programming is certainly more graphic compared to Ghostwatch, there’s no denying that for its time the program was an effective and subversive shock to the BBC system that caused its fair share of public fervor. Stephen Volk’s 10.31 is a visceral blend of fiction and reality as the writer dives into an epistolary telling of an ill-fated and horrific attempt to produce a sequel to Ghostwatch in the era of Big Brother reality television.
- Screenplay Reproduction of Lesley Manning’s annotated shooting script, complete with highlighter cues, hand-drawn storyboards, and other ephemera.
- Reversible cover art featuring archival photography and art by Thomas Walker.
- Six art cards featuring art by Thomas Walker.
Ghostwatch is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of 101 Films.