Behind the Curtains of Ghost Watch

So I was just watching The Conjuring 2 the other night, and as it went on, I started to think, in some ways this is set up a lot like Ghost Watch. At a certain point there's a big plot twist, which don't worry, I won't spoil, but it's basically the end of the second act. So if you've seen the movie, you can probably guess. Anyway, that convinced me there's no way James Wan could not have seen Ghost Watch; he's totally cribbing!  But then it occurred to me that these Conjuring movies are based on "true" cases of hauntings, so even though Ghost Watch never credits it, they must've both been based on the "real" Enfield hauntings. I did a little research, and sure enough not only is the general set-up about the same, but that plot twist happened in the real event.  So I apologize for just thinking in my head that Mr. Wan was stealing.  But it's still interesting that Ghost Watch did it first, and I would argue, better.

Update 7/3/16 - 12/18/22: Wow!  This is one I never thought we'd see on BD, but here it is.  In a fancy new, special edition from 101 Films.  But given the unique nature of this particular program, is there any point to releasing this in HD?  Let's investigate.
Ghost Watch did a lot of things first, beating all kinds of ghost movies from Grave Encounters to Paranormal Activity to their punches by a couple of decades. But in some ways, it's still pretty unique. In fact, Ghost Watch is possibly best known for being a War Of the World-style hoax, where a piece of fiction was played like a non-fiction broadcast, in this case on the BBC, and scared a lot of people. According to the materials that came with the film, it was quite serious, including newspaper reports of a teenage boy who supposedly hung himself because of the broadcast. But as with Orson Welles' radio play, it's hard not to think that some of this ballyhoo is a bit exaggerated. And while the show had not been repeated since its original broadcast until BFI's 2002 DVD, upon finally seeing it, it plays like more of a spooky but fun Halloween ghost story than a real con.
But it is effective on pretty much all levels. Regular BBC presenter Michael Parkinson cleverly plays himself hosting a somewhat cheesy BBC Halloween television special ("Ghost Watch," in the style of quite real BBC programs of the time: Hospital Watch and Crimewatch UK), where they're going to ghost hunt a supposedly real London haunting live on the air. Some aspects of it are also remarkably similar to ghost hunting shows we have today, but this predates most of that sort of thing, having aired in 1992. Another frequent BBC host Sarah Greene plays the lead reporter who takes a camera crew to stay the night with a single mother and her two daughters in their supposedly haunted flat, and Red Dwarf's Craig Charles plays an irreverent reporter cynically interviewing trick or treaters out on the street. Naturally, nobody on the show takes the threat of the haunting seriously until the eerie signs of a real supernatural presence start to add up.
This is a smart story, which puts it well ahead of most of its haunted house competition. The show has us carefully studying hand held and surveillance footage just like Paranormal Activity would do much later. And its subtle self-parody of the tackier side of BBC programming is much more authentic than Grave Encounters. And yet this movie knows just when to stop being clever and shift into the dark and serious. The all too human trauma of young girls being terrorized by a grisly, malignant force gets genuinely creepy and unsettling. This film's Mr. Pipes is still a strong rival for Wan's Crooked Man.
Now, Ghost Watch debuted on DVD from the BFI as a tight little special edition in 2002, and that's the DVD we're looking at here. It has since been reissued by 101 Films in 2011, and again as a double-pack paired up with Nigel Kneale's excellent ghost story The Stone Tape in 2013. But those discs were a step backwards, removing BFI's excellent special features.  But they've redeemed themselves in full now in 2022, giving us a fancy, new special edition blu that recovers BFI's extras and cooks up some new ones of its own.  But given it's an intentional reproduction of a vintage, early 90's live television broadcast, would restoring this film from its original elements for a new HD transfer spoil the spirit, or even the entire point, of the show? Well, don't worry. They haven't really done that.
2002 UK BFI DVD top; 2022 US 101 Films BD bottom.
The film is full-screen, interlaced and sourced from tape. That's as good as it can get and as good as it should get. It was made to look 100% like an early 90s BBC broadcast, and that was authentically achieved by the BBC using their own equipment and crew of the time. If you're here looking for Avatar-like PQ, you've come to the wrong place. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement on 101's BD release, and thankfully they've done it without any of the unfortunate tinkering many of us fans feared.

For starters, yes, this film is meant to be fullscreen and is on both discs, but BFI is slightly windowboxed and pinched to 1.29:1, which 101 corrects to its proper 1.33:1.  And while it maintains the interlacing and weird edging effects video masters of that period naturally have, the blu-ray clears up the gunky compression artifacts that cover the DVD's SD image.  For the most part, the image looks the same as it ever did (without clicking through to the full-size versions, the caps on this page appear pretty identical), and certainly still looks like an old 90s BBC show, with the blu just clearing up the little faults that the DVD added into the mix.

Both discs just have the Dolby 2.0 audio; but 101's LPCM presentation does sound a bit more robust, with background dialogue a little easier to discern.  BFI's disc was also lacking subtitles, which 101 has added (particularly useful for the possessed voice of Pipes in a few dramatic sequences). 
But BFI did offer some great supplements, which the original 101 DVD was missing.  The center piece of that features package is an audio commentary by director Lesley Manning, writer Stephen Volk and producer Ruth Baumgarten. They have a lot to say because the show's novel premise and format, not to mention the surprising controversy, giving them a lot to talk about. So it moves at a steady, informative clip. There's also a featurette called Shooting Reality, which is mostly Manning narrating stills of the original shooting script, behind the scenes photos, letters she received from children about the show, storyboards, etc. It's essentially an addendum to the main commentary to fill in the last few missing bits she wanted to say. So you'll definitely want to check out both. The DVD also includes an insert with liner notes by Kim Newman, and DVD ROM copies of the show's original treatment, screenplay, and another ghost story written by Volk.
Apart from the DVD ROM content and insert, all of that's been brought back for the 101 blu.  And what little they didn't bring back, they handily topped.  First, they added a second audio commentary, though this is actually probably the most disposable of the new assets.  It features academics Shellie McMurdo and Stella Gaynor who were both scared by this film when it originally aired on TV and they were kids.  So they don't have a lot of information to impart, and mostly just reminisce and fawn over how convincing it is (plus they run out of things to say and give up before the movie is over).  In other words, it plays as a giggly, repetitious fan commentary, rather than an expert commentary.  But more is always better than less, and maybe there's somebody out there who enjoys that kind of thing.

Much more rewarding is the new, 48-minute retrospective documentary.  It features sit down interviews with Volk, Manning, stars Sarah Green & Gillian Bevan, plus the writer and director of Host (Jed Shepherd and Robert Savage, respectively).  And while the DVD ROM copy of the script might've sounded cool, 101's actual physical 100+ page reprint is way cooler.  They also include another, 50+ page booklet of essays and six art cards.  It comes in a thick slipbox (like the good ones Arrow makes), and the interior amary case has reversible artwork.
Still, there are some key voices missing from the existing special features. And that's where Rich Lawden's 2012 documentary feature Ghost Watch: Behind the Curtains comes in.  On its own, it's quite a thorough history of the 1992 television film. They talk to pretty much everybody, including Manning, Volk and Baumgarten, and all the major stars, including those the BFI and 101 missed, like Parkinson, Mike Smith, Greene and Charles. They also talk to fans and people who remember the scares raised up by the original broadcast, and even Kim Newman. Any Ghost Watch fan will want to see this, too. In fact, it's Ghost Watch's single best companion piece, topping all the other special features combined.
2013 UK Lawman DVD.
And thankfully, it's available on DVD. It's a nice, anamorphic 16x9 1.78:1 presentation that ironically has superior picture quality to Ghost Watch itself. It's just got your basic Dolby 2.0 audio with no subtitles, and there aren't any extras except for a trailer for the doc, but I guess you wouldn't expect much for a film that's sort of already a blown up extra. Though I noticed they do have a few neat odds and ends on the filmmakers' youtube channel that would've made nice bonuses. Oh well.
Or, if you prefer, the transcript for Lawden's documentary is available in paperback. But you're going to want some version of Behind the Curtains to supplement whichever edition of Ghost Watch you may have.  If anything, it invalidates many of the other extras, just because it covers the same ground better.  Interestingly however, none of these looks at the Enfield case. It took the Conjuring 2 to put me onto that. So I'd also have to recommend this to anyone interested in that story, which was also depicted in 1998's Urban Ghost Story, and again by the BBC in their recent 2015 miniseries, The Enfield Haunting starring Timothy Spall.  But even given all of those, Ghost Watch is a unique and innovative take on the subject matter.  And, I daresay, the best.

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