In Lawrie Brewster’s Ghost Crew, bumbling paranormal investigator Tom Hughes (played by the film’s writer Tom Staunton) and his cameraman Michael (Michael Brewster) report on local supernatural phenomena for a show which shares its title with the feature. Yet Tom’s failure to capture on film an actual ghost – or even anything remotely interesting – means that the financing for the show is going to be pulled, and at this critical juncture when he is under immense pressure to come up with the goods or lose everything, Tom has a chance encounter with 16-year-old amnesiac Sandy (Megan Tremethick), whose claim to have come from a hospital in the forest leads him to investigate the abandoned psychiatric institute of Stonehaven and a very cold case that might just involve a real haunting.
Ghost Crew belongs to a loose subgenre of films showing paranormal investigators, whether amateur or professional, legitimate or fake, coming into confrontation with something genuinely supernatural. Typically in these films, the medium is made part of the message, as what we see is pieced together from intradiegetic camerawork: whether the simulcasts or live streams of Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch (1992), Daniel LeVeck’s The Cleansing Hour (2019) and Joseph and Vanessa Winter’s Deadstream (2022); or the ‘found footage’ of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi: The Curse (2005), Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010) Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz’s Grave Encounters (2011), Matt Wiele’s The Hoard (2018), and Jeff Ryan’s Mean Spirited (2022); or the mixed-media combinations of both in Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s The Last Broadcast (1998) and Graham Hughes’ Death of a Vlogger (2019). Other films, like Tony West’s Deadtectives (2018), Fabrício Bittar’s Ghost Killers vs. Bloody Mary (2018) and Francesco Cinquemani’s The Ghosts of Monday(2022), though focused on film crews, also incorporate a lot of ‘objective’, extradiegetic footage.
Ghost Crew certainly starts with intradiegetic footage, as we see Tom trying to do a piece to camera in a supposedly haunted children’s playground, only to be repeatedly undermined by a mocking local lad (Regan Walker) and by his own all-round incompetence. This sequence, like most in the film, is presented in squared-off 4:3 ratio with tracking interference at the bottom of the screen, all to reflect the VHS format in which Michael is supposedly shooting it. Yet the film grammar here is more complicated. It makes sense that a reverse shot from Sandy to Tom and Michael interviewing her should switch to widescreen as this is an objective shot of the filmmakers that includes the very camcorder with which they are recording Sandy. Yet there is an inconsistency in some subsequent widescreen-format shots which also involve Tom looking and speaking to camera as though he were being filmed, or at least as though we were seeing Michael’s point of view. It is confusing, disorienting, perhaps even – in all its comic banality – uncanny, as though the ghost were in the machine.
Similarly confusing is the time frame of Ghost Crew. Michael’s VHS equipment, the model of Tom’s desktop, and even the office’s rotary phone suggest that we are in the twentieth century, as does the fact that some of the now middle-aged characters were expressly at school in the early 1960s – but Tom’s regular videoconferencing, even if it is incongruously conducted on a late-Nineties iMac, seems very much an activity of the twenty-first century. Of course, time operates in mysterious ways here, where a murder from 18 years ago keeps intruding upon the present, and where the long-dead occupy the same space as the living. All these overt anachronisms and artifices just add to the film’s more general embrace of the irrational. It might even be – impossibly – that the film itself has become haunted by the spirit of the ramshackle, random report that Tom is so doggedly, yet also so hopelessly, putting together. For this clueless ghost expert – a hilarious mix of earnestness and idiocy – cannot see the ghost who is hidden in plain sight before his very eyes (most viewers will be way ahead of him in this), and who is reaching out and taking revenge as much in spite as because of Tom’s interventions, in a peculiar preternatural partnership that transgresses spatio-temporal norms.
Certainly there are aspects of Ghost Crew that mirror the prat-falling schlubbiness of the show’s host. Tom is a terrible presenter and a terrible interviewer, filling his footage with awkward pauses and panicked glances as he struggles to comprehend, let alone to impose a narrative on, everything (be it unearthly or entirely mundane) going on around him. Yet one way or another, the message of the unrestful dead will out, whether through the piecemeal exposition parcelled across Tom’s multiple interviewees (Anthony Strachan, Gordon Holliday, Michael Daviot, Nick Ford, Richard Pate, Jon Vangdal Aamaas, Kirsty Vance) and demanding reconstruction, or through a climactic deus ex machina that forces a resolution which Tom can only document – except that the widescreen format of the final sequence would suggest that there is no in-film camera recording what has transpired. Once again, Tom proves unequal to the task, yet his failure to put Fife on the paranormal map might – paradoxically – be this horror comedy’s, and Hex Studios’, scrappy success.
strap: Lawrie Brewster’s low-budget comedy horror throws a schlubby, prat-falling paranormal investigator at a real case of supernatural revenge
© Anton Bitel