B&W, 2017, 73 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Ashley Thorpe
Starring Jonathan Rigby, Reece Shearsmith, Annabel Bates, Claire Louise Amias, Julian Sands
Nucleus Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
While the horror community might think that the (very vaguely) true story that inspired The Conjuring is the only docu-horror project around in the current decade, plenty of other real-life macabre offerings have been floated around that offer a more inventive take on reportedly real supernatural occurrences. One of the most unusual and striking of these is 2017’s Borley Rectory, an animated look at the location that earned its place in local lore as “the most haunted house in England.” Told in an episodic or somewhat impressionistic style, it’s a compelling and frequently ingenious fusion of modern digital animation techniques and the fun investigative tactics that took hold in the 1970s.
Presented in black-and-white with an interesting use of rotoscoping where appropriate, the partially crowdfunded project (originally intended as a short film) surveys the history of Borley Rectory starting with its initial spooky reputation in the late 1920s. In fact, the opening third of the film is a tour through some of the more notable events in the house's history rendered in a style best described as the opening of Robert Wise's The Haunting hijacked by Guy Madddin and The Brothers Quay. Though the building itself was torched in a fire and then demolished in 1944 (and existed in total for less than a century), it was digitally recreated here using the original floor plans which results in a frequently hair-raising recreation of its atmosphere and most notable uncanny incidents. Julian Sands narrates the proceedings with the link being the investigations of the real Harry Price (Rigby), whose books about the rectory made it a minor pop culture sensation. Stories of headless horsemen and spectral nuns were the real audience grabbers, but the building itself was also infamous for its eerie acoustics and later claims that Price had faked many of the occurrences. Inside No. 9 and The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith once again proves his classic horror allegiance by turning up here as VC Wall, a reporter for the Daily Mirror who brought in Price to cover the haunted premises. Wholly unique and featuring an unusual rhythm that becomes more hypnotic the longer you watch, this is the perfect thing to watch on a late autumn evening with the wind rustling in the trees outside. Be advised that though the violence level is extremely low with more of an emphasis on mood, there note that there is a bit of nudity in a couple of scenes that may not be suitable for kiddie horror fans.
For its Blu-ray debut, UK label Nucleus Films has outfitted this film with an impressive package touting “6 hours of extras!” for a film that runs just a small percentage of that length. That isn’t puffy PR speak either as the disc really does come loaded with a massive amount of substantial goodies that put many other genre releases to shame. The transfer itself looks great as you’d expect, retaining the atmospheric monochromatic look with great fidelity and allowing you to appreciate some of the finger touches like the constant waves of dust motes drifting in the light to give the film a unique visual texture. The 5.1 DTS and 2.0 PCM options are both subdued for much of the running time but lots of fun when they really spring to life, especially a seance sequence guaranteed to have you looking over your shoulder. Optional English subtitles are also provided.
Two new commentaries are provided, the first with director-writer-editor-animator Ashley Thorpe and EoFF's Kevin Lyons about the origins of the film, his own creative influences (including recurring nightmares), the process of using the viewer's imagination to subtly manipulate and chill them, and the process of uncovering the mountain of fact and fiction about Borley. Then horror historian Johnny Mains chats about the evidence surrounding the participants in the real story and goes into the influence of it upon the horror genre along with his own construction of a timeline surrounding its mythical history. The sound quality here is a lot rougher with some strong reverb, though that arguably works in favor of the atmosphere if you're in the right frame of mind. The mammoth " Ultrasound of a Haunting: The Making of Borley Rectory" (104m58s) actually clocks in much longer than the feature itself with Thorpe, Shearsmith, Rigby, composer Mick Grierson (who was inspired by a viewing of Thorpe's short film, "Remain"), actor Ed Berry (who came aboard with a different Thorpe short, "Scayrecrow"), actor Nicholas Vince, actor Claire Louise Amias, actor Sarah Dee, actor Annable Bates, producer Tom Atkinson, and author Christopher Maynard covering the background of the production from the intended short film template to the finished "Gothic melodrama" product via Glass Eye Pix (represented here by Glenn McQuaid and Larry Fessenden), with lots of discussion of Thorpe's other projects along the way including some key radio dramas. They also talk about getting Sands aboard as narrator in 2011, a key factor in getting it all off the ground. Then "Haunted Generation: The Legacy of Usborne's World of the Unknown Children's Book Series" (31m35s) peers into the more of the influential supernatural publication with Maynard, Shearsmith, and Usborne Publishing's Anna Howorth, showing off the ghost edition that countless imaginations at the time with its stories of ghostly sightings all over England. (Thorpe makes a little cameo at the end, too.) "Night Visions: Barley Rectory in Helsinki" (23m48s) features an intro and Q&A for the film's first screening there and chatting about the story behind his film that "scarred a generation," while "Celluloid Screams" (32m14s) is a 2017 screening Q&A with Thorpe and actor Nicholas Vince offering a slightly condensed and reworking appraisal of the film. (Festival screening note: not a great idea to do a Q&A while the film itself is still wrapping up behind you!) In "At the Mercy of Ghosts" (27m52s), British screenwriter Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch, The Awakening) sits down with Thorpe for a conversation about English ghost stories and the themes of grief and irrationality that run through the storied tradition. In "History of Borley Rectory" (60m4s), you get a thorough scholarly account of Price and the building via authors Stewart Evans, Eddie Brazil and Paul Adams, who go in depth about the ghostly figures like the nun and offer hypotheses about the background behind them. A visit to the British Library's horror expedition (16m48s) is a very enjoyable, casual hangout with Shearsmith and Rigby (and Thorpe, briefly) looking at film and historical gems while chatting about their own fascinations with the macabre. Then a Grimmfest interview (11m7s) with Thorpe, Rigby, Amias, and Atkinson covering the making of the film in front of a step and repeat, while "Anatomy of a Scene: Animating Borley Rectory (10m19s) brings in Double Farley Creative's Kevin Double to demonstrate how existing photos and plans were used to make a virtual 3-D replica of the long-vanished architecture. In "Conjuring the Spirits" (11m14s), furniture restorationist and artist Robert Thorpe is seen at work on the Borley Ouija board, an idea that came late in the process and features some nice attention to detail including some familiar elements from the film. In "Harry Price and the Martian Lighthouse" (4m55s), Thorpe presents a thumbnail sketch of one of Price's fascination with Mars and astral waves, including his attempts to communicate with Martians via lenses developed with the aid of a lighthouse and the Chance Brothers glassblowing company. Finally the disc closes out with a gallery (6m45s) of the production from Sands' recording session through the extensive greenscreen work, two teasers, a trailer, and the three Thorpe shorts touched on elsewhere in the extras: "Scayrecrow" (12m25s), "The Hairy Hands" (13m23s), and "Screaming Skull (10m12s).
Reviewed on November 10, 2019.