The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill (2013)

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

In this film’s title, the word ‘Diaries’ evokes the signature video-journal style of Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates’ debut features The Zombie Diaries (2006) and World of the Dead: The Zombie Diaries (2011), while ‘Paranormal’ points to the occult preoccupations of the Paranormal Activity found-footage franchise – but it is the name ‘Clophill’, referring to a small Bedfordshire village, that truly captures the spirit of the filmmakers’ latest low-budget digicam outing. Clophill’s abandoned, ruined church may genuinely be associated with all manner of local stories involving devil worship, ghosts and witchcraft – but every British comedian knows that merely mentioning the name of UK locations can be enough to raise a laugh, because all of Britain (but especially ‘Little Britain’) is suffused with a drearily absurd banality.

Of course, banality is itself just another brand of realism no less than the wilful amateurishness of a shaking camera, and it can form part of what makes a faux documentary like this seem at least momentarily believable to its viewers. Yet here Bartlett and Gates push the banality too far to engage, as they, a small film crew, and married couple Craig and Cris, all set out over three nights to investigate the eerie old St Mary’s Church and its environs, only to become more and more spooked, Blair Witch Project-style, by noises off. Commentary from talking heads (authors, folklorists, psychogeographers, paranormal investigators) and vox pops from locals are evidently intended to lend authenticity to the proceedings – but for the most part no such authentication is required, as so very little here requires any suspension of disbelief, or is remotely frightening.

It is not so very unusual that there should be rustling noises (and the odd dead animal) in the woods, or shadows in the dark, or vocalisations coming from a ‘ghost box’ (a modified, channel-skipping radio) – and notably the ghost box ‘messages’ are accompanied by interpretative subtitles that do not always convincingly match what is actually heard, much as the phrase ‘ne vide’ once daubed in red on the church’s wall does not actually mean ‘no future’ in Latin (as we are told it does), nor anything else intelligible. When, midway through their investigation, our intrepid ghost-hunting crew gets visited by the jolly membership of the Luton Paranormal Society, the film’s mundanity reaches its ludicrous peak, and we seem to be watching not so much a creepy tale of the uncanny as a docudrama of people’s capacity, in believing what they want to believe, to supplement the most humdrum of realities with the workings of their own limited, if overactive, imaginations. As Craig puts it, having just been startled by the sound of his walkie-talkie suddenly coming on: "The biggest scare of the night was that mic."

Knowing that this is not enough to satisfy the viewer, Bartlett and Gates impose a narrative of their own on all this ho-hum footage, with a Kill List-inspired climax and an equally contrived prologue-and-coda frame that all somehow feel even more out of place than a church-haunting spectre or home-wrecking demon. On the strength of this, it is hard to look forward to Gates’ solo sequel, The Paranormal Diaries: Mothman.

Anton Bitel