Monday, September 11, 2017

THE BLACKWELL GHOST (2017)

THE BLACKWELL GHOST delivers the best scare I’ve had in a long time.

It is a perfect demonstration of those occasional delights (in this case, scares) you sometimes encounter upon coming across a film with absolutely no prior knowledge of it. I was absently cruising Amazon Prime late one night when I came across this title. It was only 59 minutes, so despite the hour I impulsively gave it a look. It was billed as a documentary about a ghost hunter. Ordinarily I find things like this laughably absurd, because in spite of all the technology employed no ghosts ever have the courtesy to present themselves.

But here, although no spectral figures materialized, I was left at the end with one of the most hair-raising shocks I have ever suffered.

Since then, I’ve told many friends about this, but cautioned them: Watch the film first, and only after that check out its backstory.

At any rate, at the outset, THE BLACKWELL GHOST, seemed different from your ordinary store-bought paranormal investigation. This ghost hunter was no professional camera geek but merely a back-porch hack making a living by making clunky “zombie” video quickies. On a whim, he launched a one-man investigation into a purportedly haunted house in a Pennsylvanian suburban town. His inquiry picks up steam when he is invited by the occupant to visit the house and hear its story: It is a tale of thumps and bumps in the night, of doors and lights that click on and off, and, most intriguing, of a cellar with an underground well into which a previous occupant, one “Ruth Blackwell,” had dispatched the dismembered bodies of her victims.

Some research at the local library reveals that in 1941 a woman named Ruth Blackwell had indeed lived in that house and murdered and dismembered several victims and discarded them into the well in the cellar. A photo exists of Ruth, a decidedly sinister character about which nothing more is known.

The rest of THE BLACKWELL GHOST is an on-camera, first-person documentary that depicts our investigator and his wife spending three days and nights in the house. Armed with some makeshift cameras and microphones, they settle in. The first night is disappointingly bereft of spooks. The second night brings on a few strange sounds but little else. Determined to leave after one more night, they encounter during a thunderstorm a whole new battery of incidents that leaves them fleeing the house.

And left me shaken, baffled, and, above all, curious about what I had just seen.

Let me isolate one incident from the events depicted: One strategy our ghost hunter employs to trap any trickster ghosts is to place a soccer-ball-sized sphere on a table in the living room, an open invitation for a ghost to move it. Later, during that last, terrible night, alarmed by the noises downstairs and the appearance of veils of smoke triggering the smoke alarm, he ventures below. He discovers that every faucet in the house is on and that the power has been switched off. Down in the cellar, with only weak illumination from his light stand, he gropes for the breaker switch. No luck. But he can’t help noticing one new detail about the cellar: The sphere that had been placed on a table upstairs is now sitting atop the heavy grate covering the well opening.

Hours later he and his wife quit the house.

The film ends with no explanation or end credits. We have yet to learn the identity of our intrepid investigator.

Okay. That’s it. I must admit I swallowed this whole thing, hook, line, and cellar. All the paranormal, found-footage movies out there notwithstanding, I bought it all.

I later learned that THE BLACKWELL GHOST is, in all probability, a hoax of exceedingly clever achievement. No such house, no Ruth Blackwell, no account of the crimes exist. The clumsiness of its narrative structure, its amateurish execution, the goofy tactics of its unnamed narrator, the failure to deliver any spooks of substance—all contribute to its apparent veracity. You can go back and review it and detect all kinds of telltale evidence to the contrary—where is the camera for that scene, why are the characters not named, why are there no credits, for example. . . ? We don’t even know who the filmmaker is. Yet, the very fragmentariness of it all, as if a length of video film had been ripped off a larger reel and hastily abandoned, contributes to it strangeness. Calculation, if it is here, is superbly planned and executed in a manner that conceals its artistry.

I am left with that glimpse in the flickering light of the cellar of that blasted ball sitting on top of the well grate. What it signified, what it suggests, is with me still.

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