Cross-posted to TV Today
I saw Paranormal Activity at the cinema this weekend. For those who haven’t yet seen it, or heard about it from the large amounts of online buzz around it, it’s a supernatural film shot on a single video camera (a la The Blair Witch Project).
With all the best horror films, it’s the slowly creeping sense of dread that can turn a good movie into a great one. For me, Paranormal Activity doesn’t quite have that — while there are some genuinely creepy moments in the film, the scenes in between are more about tedium than tension.
What really killed the film for me, though, was the thought that I’d seen the whole concept — a family home tormented by ghosts or demons — done so much better. By the BBC, in fact, in 1992’s Ghostwatch.
It’s descended into notoriety now, of course, because despite being pre-recorded and broadcast in the Screen One drama slot, its presentation — as a live studio programme with outside broadcast links to a suburban housing estate — led some to overlook the (frankly rather dodgy) acting, and believe they were actually watching a documentary. Actors Sarah Greene and Craig Charles, on the “outside broadcast” duties, were then best known for their TV presenting roles, and in the studio Mike Smith (Greene’s husband) and Michael Parkinson were certainly no thesps. Indeed, remarkably it was the studio TV presentation that was the most plausible element of the whole setup, with the conceit only exposed by the stiff and much more tightly scripted response of the studio guests.
Never repeated on television, the British Film Institute released it on DVD in 2002, the tenth anniversary of the programme’s broadcast (the DVD is now deleted, but you may be able to find second-hand copies online).
On the BFI’s website, they claim:
> Seen today, following the advent of such tightly controlled ‘reality’ shows as Big Brother (Channel 4, 2000- ) and especially Most Haunted (Living TV, 2002- ), it is clear that the strong audience response Ghostwatch received at the time was due less to its dubious credibility as a factual broadcast than to the way that it tapped into audiences’ desire to be fooled, to be tickled by even the slightest possibility that a live broadcast could really go out of control.
Most Haunted (the creation, of course, of Greene’s fellow Blue Peter alumna, Yvette Fielding) does take the notion of fiction presented as fact to its most ludicrous extremes. Paranormal Activity is in no way as ridiculous — but as far as being creeped out goes, the BBC’s effort is hard to beat.
Below: a clip from Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments talking about Ghostwatch.