Haunted Ulster Live (2023) Review
Haunted Ulster Live is part homage to, and part parody of The BBC’s infamous Ghostwatch. For those unfamiliar with it, it was a 1992 Halloween special hosted by Michael Parkinson and presented as a live broadcast from a haunted house. Unfortunately, many viewers didn’t know it wasn’t the real thing and the BBC ended up fielding over 1,000,000 from concerned viewers. An early entry in the mockumentary/found footage genre it’s also the precursor of films like KILD TV, Deadstream, and The Cleansing Hour.
It’s Halloween night in 1998, TV veteran Gerry Burns (Mark Claney, Belfast 1912, Distortion) and children’s TV presenter Michelle Kelly (Aimee Richardson, Game of Thrones, Miss Conception) along with radio DJ Declan (Dan Leith, Case 210, Not Just Yet) broadcasting live from the attic of an allegedly haunted house. They’re joined by the home’s owner Sarah (Siobhan Kelly, Brendan Smyth: Betrayal of Trust, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find), her daughter Rose (Libby McBride, The Glenarma Tapes, Nowhere Special), and son Stephen (Jay Lowey, Ruthless).
Haunted Ulster Live’s writer/director Dominic O’Neill shows us the events in the house from various cameras, both in the room with the characters and surveillance cameras throughout the house. And they capture the odd bit of poltergeist activity. But once Sinead (Antoinette Morelli, Treaty Live, Stand Off) who’s a medium, and her partner and ley line expert Robert (David Fleming) arrive things start to get spookier as they detect a presence in the house.
Not that it’s all serious, but unlike Ghostwatch, Haunted Ulster Live also catches the behind the cameras goings on. That includes things like mistaking taxi radios for spirits talking and rivalries between the end of his career Gerry and Michelle who’s rumoured to be moving to a high-profile children’s show very shortly.
There’s also their producer, an overbearing Englishman who clashes with Sarah over her daughter’s safety vs his ratings once the entity fixes on the young girl. At another point, he pulls the show off the air for being too scary. Then puts it back on when he sees the ratings it was getting. There’s not enough of this kind of thing to call Haunted Ulster Live a horror comedy or satire, but it adds an amusing background to the film’s first hour
O’Neill also adds period detail to the film with newscasts mentioning political violence that was still ongoing at the time, PSAs and commercials from the era and a news segment interviewing people outraged that a show like this was being aired. “It could push our children into devil worship, or Dungeons and Dragons” proclaims an angry mother. The priest who turns up screaming verses from the Book of Revelations could as easily be from the present day as he could from 1998, however.
While I can’t judge how well he recreated late 90s Irish TV O’Neill does do an excellent job of making the viewer feel like they’re watching a live TV show that’s going more and more off the rails as it progresses. Haunted Ulster Live starts out as enjoyably spooky Halloween entertainment and becomes progressively more frightening as it goes on. The last act lets loose and delivers a twist I certainly didn’t see coming.
The final minutes recall not so much Ghostwatch as it does John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, or one of the British productions that influenced it, Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy’s The Stone Tape. I think one of the Extro sequels also went there, but I may be the only person who actually watched them. For those who get it, it’s an extremely effective wrapup to the story. Those who aren’t familiar with them should still find it creepy, just not as intense as those who do.
Haunted Ulster Live made its debut at Frightfest London in August and will make its Irish debut on Halloween Night at the Belfast Film Festival. You can check for announcements of other screenings on the film’s Facebook page.