Nostalgia fans have been particularly well treated this Halloween with the Arrow special edition Blu-Ray of An American Werewolf In London, not to mention the hotly anticipated director’s cuts of both Clive Barker’s monster-mash Night Breed and this year’s Folk Horror sensation Midsommar.
And they’re all great – but there are a couple of things which have been on the wishlist of many folks of a certain age – and these two releases are also hugely intertwined. I am of course talking about the Blu-Ray of Ashley Thorpe’s documentary film Borley Rectory and Usborne’s retro reissue of All About Ghosts (a review of which will be coming tomorrow).
Inspired by the Usborne books on the supernatural, director Thorpe attempted to finance his film through crowdfunding site Indiegogo in 2013. That campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, but it did bring the project to the attention of writer/comedian and horror superfan Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9) and renowned horror film historian Jonathan Rigby. With their added heft behind the project, a second campaign in 2014 went on to smash their target by over 300%.
The film was completed in the summer of 2017 and soon hit the horror and film convention circuit, playing at festivals throughout 2018. And this was where I first heard of it. I follow author, YouTuber and Fortean Times journalist Peter Laws on Twitter and was interested to hear he was coming to deliver a talk on his new book The Frighteners at the annual ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) event in Manchester, close to my flat.
Although I was unable to go, I was glad to have learned of the event as the day’s line-up on the website also included a showing of a film, followed by a Q&A with the director, about something which had scared me as a child – thanks to a book on the supernatural.
That book was not the celebrated All About Ghosts but Uborne’s Supernatural Guides are just as well-loved. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to acquire a pair of secondhand copies of Haunted Houses, Ghosts and Spectres. One is safely stashed away on my bookcase, but the other, which was not in the best condition, was carefully taken apart, scanned into my computer and painstakingly restored in Photoshop so I could have a digital version for reading on my iPad.
It was in this book where I first learned about Borley Rectory – The Most Haunted House in England – and the story has fascinated and frightened me ever since – so when I got my Blu-Ray copy of the film last week, I could not wait to delve in to see how Thorpe, Shearsmith and co would approach the story.
What’s immediately striking about the film is that rather than approaching it in a modern style, Thorpe takes the film in a mock-vintage direction. It’s all shot in black and white and presented almost like found, unrestored footage from the early 20th century, complete with dust and debris on the film reel and a constant, subtle flicker which suggests being shot on a hand-cranked camera. Appearance-wise it has a similar aesthetic to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. This absolutely suits the film, as large portions are set in the late 19th and early 20th century. Borley Rectory is an impressive mix of CGI, miniatures, matte paintings, live-action and rotoscoped animation and it looks just great. On many occasions, I really did forget I was watching a recent film.
But enough about technical stuff! What did I think of it?
The film itself comes in at just over an hour, and for that entire time, I was gripped. All the things I had hoped would be there from my book were there – the ghostly carriage, servant bells ringing for no reason, mysterious messages appearing on walls and most of all, the shade of a nun who would look in through the summer house window and startled the occupants!
Although very much a documentary, authoritatively narrated by Julian Sands (Warlock), it still works as a chilling ghost story as we follow the experiences of occupants over several decades for the first half of the film. Time slows down a little for the second half as we get to the events which led to the story becoming widespread – frequent visits by Daily Mirror journalist V.C. Wall (Shearsmith) and renowned paranormal investigator Harry Price (Rigby) over the rectory’s final decade before it burned down in mysterious circumstances.
I found myself being particularly drawn to the story of the spectral nun and the unfolding sad story surrounding her supposed murder. While I don’t particularly believe that ghosts exist, I do keep an open mind, and there’s something definitely creepy in the fact that, years after the ghostly nun’s widely reported sightings, the skeleton of a young woman was found in the remains of Borley following its demolition in the 1940s.
As well as the main feature the Borley Rectory Blu-Ray contains a wealth of special features about the making of the documentary and the true-life events. My particular favourite of these was Haunted Generation – a look at how Usborne’s All About Ghosts book has inspired a generation of writers and filmmakers. This included interviews with author Christopher Maynard, Shearsmith and Usborne exec Anna Howorth who spearheaded the campaign to get it reprinted. Ghostwatch creator Stephen Volk pops up on another feature and some of Thorpe’s early short films also feature – revealing an interesting animation style which can still be seen in the main feature.
Borley Rectory is a fascinating, informative and creepy look at one of the strangest stories from these isles, and a worthy addition to the film collection of horror, ghost hunting and history fans alike!
Remember to follow the hashtag #31DOH on Twitter and Facebook every day in October to see what other terrifying treats we’ve been watching!