Exam (2009)

Director: Stuart Hazeldine

Starring: Luke Mably, Chukwudi Iwuji, Jimi Mistry, Nathalie Cox, Adar Beck, Pollyanna McIntosh

“There is one question before you, and one answer is required. If you try to communicate with myself or the guard, you will be disqualified. If you spoil your paper, intentionally or accidentally, you will be disqualified. If you choose to leave this room for any reason, you will be disqualified. Any questions?” (Invigilator, Exam)

Sitting an exam can be stressful at the best of times, but imagine one at a job interview where passing could get you a lucrative job with a top company. Not bad enough? Then imagine how you’d feel if you turned over your exam paper only to find that the question sheet was completely blank.

This weird French chap doesn't have much to say... or does he? Dun dun dunnn

That’s the dilemma facing the eight applicants in Exam, and they have 80 minutes to figure out the answer. There are a few rules in place – if any of them speaks the invigilator or guard, spoils their exam paper or leaves the room they’ll immediately be disqualified.

Within minutes one of the applicants starts writing down why she feels she should get the job and is thrown out for spoiling her paper, making things even more confusing. How do you solve a problem when you don’t know what the question is, and couldn’t write down the answer even if you did?

He was clearly the tallest man they had ever met in their lives

Eventually one of the eight – an arrogant, outspoken chap (Luke Mably) – explains to the rest of the group that there are no rules to prevent them from talking to each other. He assigns everyone stereotypical nicknames – Black, Brown, Brunette and so forth, naming himself White – and starts instructing everyone to try different things. Naturally the others don’t like being bossed around, and turn against White. That’s when things get interesting.

"Now sit there and have a good think about what you've done, mister"

Despite its low budget Exam still manages to look and feel slick throughout. This was clearly a labour of love for director/writer Stuart Hazeldine and it shows. It’s well shot throughout and the score does that rare trick of being effective yet completely unnoticeable at the same time. The only real negatives are some of the performances, most notably from Jimi “East Is East” Mistry who plays Brown and is about as wooden as the desks in the exam room.

Your opinion of Exam is likely to rest on the ending. For some it’s a clever conclusion that comes out of left field, for other’s it’s a silly, almost childish solution that may open up more questions than it answers. Regardless, Exam remains a good example of a film that keep you entertained for an hour and a half using only a single room and eight people.

Ghostwatch (1992)

Director: Lesley Manning

Starring: Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles, Michelle & Cherise Wesson

“What big eyes you have… what big eyes you have.” (Susie, Ghostwatch)

Picture the scene. It’s Halloween night, 1992, and the BBC has decided to present a live, hour-long broadcast from the most haunted house in Britain in an attempt to catch the first live, on-camera footage of ghostly events taking place. Well-respected presenter Michael Parkinson is hosting proceedings at a nearby studio, accompanied by parapsychologist Lin Pascoe (there to give an expert’s view), and TV host Mike Smith manning the call centre and taking calls from the public if they see anything odd.

But the real focus of the show is the outside broadcast live from the haunted house, as popular children’s presenter (and real-life wife of Mike Smith) Sarah Greene plans to spend the night with the Early family, who are being terrorised by a ghost going by the name of Pipes (so called because the noise he initially made sounds like old central heating pipes clanking and warming up). Finally, outside the house will be comedian and star of popular sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, Craig Charles, who will be interviewing witnesses and generally adding some comic relief to what should be an otherwise nervy night. They are all expecting to have a laugh with the audience and make light of the situation, but that’s until things start to go wrong. The eldest daughter’s voice is taken over by Pipes, photo frames fly off the wall and Pipes starts taking over the studio.

Except he doesn’t really. The whole thing was a fake broadcast filmed in the style of Orson Welle’s famous War Of The Worlds radio drama, presented as genuine in order to terrify the audience into thinking it’s really happening. It was perhaps too successful, because it ended up with the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to genuinely inflict post-traumatic stress symptoms in children, and caused one mentally unstable viewer to kill himself.

As a result, the BBC has never shown Ghostwatch again in the eighteen years since it was released for fear of the same thing happening again, but it’s now available on DVD and while the acting is a little less credible these days it’s still a spooky little tale.

I vaguely remember Ghostwatch’s first broadcast in 1992. I never saw it at the time (I was only 9 and still kept my distance from ‘scary’ things), but my uncle phoned up my house, convinced it was real. These days it’s fair to say that Ghostwatch is not the most convincing ‘hoax’ of all time, primarily due to the poor acting ability of the actresses playing the mother and her two daughters. Despite the generally believable performances from the actual TV presenters playing themselves, these two actresses still manage to bring you back to reality as you realise this isn’t possibly genuine, simply because nobody talks like they do. The eldest daughter and mother in particular are unconvincing.

Can you spot the ghostly figure of Pipes?

However, for those who missed the opening titles and tuned in halfway through, this could have very easily passed as a genuine piece of reality TV. Hindsight makes it difficult to determine whether people would have been gullible enough to buy it, because when I recently watched it I was fully aware that it was fake and was looking for signs of this. Perhaps it didn’t even enter the minds of people watching it at the time – bear in mind this was the early 90’s, long before the wave of both reality TV and famous hoaxes such as The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast and (in my opinion) Living TV’s Most Haunted.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that regardless of its believability, it’s extremely well-produced and successfully mimics the format of real-life TV broadcasts long before Chris Morris and Armando Ianucci attempted it with spoof news shows The Day Today and Brass Eye.

The tension is well-built with the initially slight unease of members of the public phoning in and claiming they’ve seen a shadowy figure in some footage that was played earlier. This progresses to some subliminal appearances of a strange person in the background, in a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him shots. Eventually it all comes to a head, the audience gets the most blatant sighting of the figure, and from then on the viewers are hooked as all hell breaks loose.

To say any more would cruelly spoil things, and this truly is a DVD that has to be watched with as little knowledge of events as possible, but the internet is buzzing with those who have already seen it and are comparing sightings of the ghost, trying to get the definitive list of how many times he appears (the correct answer? Nine in total).

Ghostwatch may not be everybody’s cup of tea – the acting is occasionally dodgy, the ending is ridiculous and the whole thing smells faintly of cheese. But anyone willing to let that slide and consider that nearly two decades ago this scared the hell out of a gullible country (and unfortunately led to a suicide) will thoroughly enjoy watching this. If possible, watch it in a large group and play Spot The Ghost.

In short, Ghostwatch inspired a hell of a lot of ‘fake’ reality programmes that followed, and for this reason alone should be worth a view. At its best it’s a fantastic study in the human mind and how it deals with subliminal imagery and belief. At its worst it’s a bloody good ghost story. It’s a win-win situation!

Here’s a feature on Ghostwatch from Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments, which helps explain why it’s so enjoyable:

28 Days Later (2002)

Director: Danny Boyle

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston

“No, no, see, this is a really shit idea. Know why? Because it’s really obviously a shit idea.” (Jim, 28 Days Later)

I went to see 28 Days Later on its day of release in the UK (way back in November 2002) and as a result was not privy to the excessive hype it soon gathered afterwards. The first time I saw it I came out slightly disappointed, but after repeated viewings I warmed to it.

I think the main reason I was initially let down was because I was expecting a zombie film. The trailer gave the impression it was a zombie film, it was being billed as a zombie film, and as a result I was ready to see a zombie film. Let me get this straight, however: 28 Days Later is not a zombie film. The “infected” (as they shall be known) are fast as fuck. Yes, they may portray zombie-like symptoms (such as scarred flesh and the need to destroy humans… we do not necessarily know if any are eaten), but the red eyes and occasional violent vomiting of blood suggest that they are indeed infected with a virus.

Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma to find that it’s been 28 days since Britain has been exposed to a highly infectious virus known as Rage. He doesn’t know it yet but because he’s been lying in a hospital he’s become one of the last remaining people in Britain. The first 15 minutes are amazing for anyone who has been to London before and knows the surroundings. The shots of Jim walking through a deserted Piccadilly Circus are a sight to behold, and it makes you wonder exactly how they managed it (unless you watch the DVD, in which it’s revealed in the extra that they did it by filming the scenes just as day broke and just off-camera was the film crew trying to stop drunken clubbers wandering into the frame as they stumbled home).

Before long Jim begins to encounter the infected and meets up with a small number of other survivors including Selena, the other main character. He is told of the country’s mass exposure to the Rage virus and its subsequent evacuation. More infected appear. Jim and Selena get running and eventually they meet up with Hannah and her father. Unfortunately for any chairs looking to get their big break in acting, it appears that the young actress playing Hannah is more wooden than they could ever hope to be.

The rest of the film is a take-off of sorts on both Dawn Of The Dead (the group raid some shops, have a laugh then make some thoughtful, deep comments on the future of the human race) and Day Of The Dead (the group end up at a military base full of arsehole soldiers who keep some of the infected locked up). Even though it’s not a zombie film, honest guv.

Generally the acting is of a very high standard (with the exception of the aformentioned girl of wood, of course). Christopher Eccleston appears near the end of the movie as the leader of a military group and more or less steals the show with his performance, which is just as well because the rest of this final act is a bit rubbish. What was before a thought-provoking film about survival and what exactly the end of the world would mean (“you’ll never be able to read a new book or see a new film”), becomes a “men with guns versus zombies” blastfest, which seems somewhat out of place in a film that has for the most part been human-free.

You see, what makes the “infected” scenes so scary is the fact that the film’s locales are quiet and tranquil for the the vast majority of the time (since the towns and motorways are deserted), so when the infected arrive, there’s a clear change in atmosphere – what was once calm and peaceful has been flipped onto its arse, and shit’s about to go down (this is best demonstrated in the excellent tunnel scene). Once at the military base however, there are too many people we have to get to know (there are at least 4 or 5 new characters with distinct personalities), and by the time we’re used to these new, busier surroundings after being treated to sparsely populated scenery for 70 minutes, the film’s over.

Despite this, 28 Days Later is an outstanding horror film that is thoroughly recommended. The soundtrack is superb, the direction is gritty and it’s just a very well-made British horror.