An appreciation of
Johnny Restall dares enter Ashley Thorpe’s 2017 recreation of Borley Rectory – the Most Haunted House in England…
Often referred to as the most haunted house in England, the case of Borley Rectory has long been infamous (and controversial). It casts a long, distinctive shadow over the annals of real-life paranormal incidents, and has attained almost legendary status.
Yet, while it is often cited as a key influence on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House (1959) and Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) (and their respective screen adaptations), as well generating numerous ‘factual’ books and analyses, surprisingly few films have been made which actually recount the history of the rectory. This is probably at least partly due to just how complex, contradictory, and disputed the ‘real’ tale remains to this day.
Writer-director Ashley Thorpe’s 2017 Borley Rectory is a highly stylised, unusual, and brave attempt to rectify this apparent oversight. Starting life as a short, before being funded to full length via an Indiegogo campaign, the film seems to have been a real labour of love for its director, taking approximately six years to complete. With a duration of just 75 minutes, it covers all of the key elements of the story, from the Victorian rebuilding of the house to its destruction in 1939.
Thorpe has called his approach to the story ‘an ultrasound of a haunting’, a fitting description both for the film’s beautiful, murky, layered look and for the shifting perspectives it employs to explore all of the strange elements of its much-mythologised tale. The evocative, unique black and white cinematography and mise en scène (by Thorpe and producer Tom Atkinson) perfectly capture the grainy, mysterious atmosphere of the famous vintage photographs which are now the only available visual references for Borley Rectory.
Almost all of the ‘sets’ are computer-generated, laboriously recreating the layout of the house based on the historical evidence, with human actors working against a green screen. While this is not unusual for a Hollywood superhero epic, it is less commonly used for low-budget horror. The screen constantly flickers with weathered textures, the rotoscoping and digital animation creating an uncanny visual sensation, as though aged images have been bought to life using old-fashioned stop-motion techniques, artfully incorporating the physical performers into its artificial world. At times, it recalls an illustrated volume come to slightly unnatural life, even producing some charming pop-up book effects at one point.
Narrated by Julian Sands, the film offers the following bold claim as its starting point: ‘So much has been published about Borley Rectory that it seems almost inconceivable that anything new could possibly be unearthed. Surprisingly, this is not the case.’ While I’m not entirely convinced that it really uncovers anything previously unknown, the mix between documentary and dramatisation which follows is never less than intriguing and may be the closest we ever get to seeing the footage taken by the renowned ‘paranormal investigator’ Harry Price, apparently filmed but never released.
The tangled web of Borley’s history is largely approached chronologically. We move through multiple tenants and phenomena, beginning with the Reverend Henry Bull and his family, who moved into the rebuilt house in 1863 (the previous building had burnt down in 1841).
Bull (Richard Strange) is certainly not averse to ghost stories, claiming to have built the octagonal Summerhouse for the sole purpose of observing the ‘resident’ phantom nun walking the gardens, and bricking up a dining room window, supposedly to stop her from peering at the family during meals. (The fact that no trace has ever been found of a nunnery being built on the site has never stopped this particular apparition from claiming a firm place in the Borley legends.)
Bull’s son Harry takes over upon his father’s death in 1892, and his eventual marriage causes a family rift, with his four sisters (all of whom claimed to have witnessed supernatural experiences) required to move out in order to accommodate his new family. When Harry passes away, the sisters insinuate murder (possibly to discredit his unfavourable will) and claim that his unhappy ghost now stalks the halls, adding another phantasm to roll call.
The situation escalates when the Reverend Smith and his wife (Nicholas Vince and Claire Louise Amias) take up residence in 1928. Plagued by ringing bells, disembodied footsteps and strange voices, they ‘inadvertently’ alert the Daily Mirror to the story, while trying to contact the Psychical Research society. The paper dispatches reporter V. C. Wall (a quirky performance from Reece Shearsmith), whose publicity really propels the rectory into the public conscience.
The Daily Mirror’s coverage brings the integral character of Harry Price to the haunting (played with relish by Gothic expert Jonathan Rigby). The story starts to become a sea of ghost hunting, séances, planchettes and increasingly bizarre phenomena. The Smiths move on, the publicity perhaps being greater than they had anticipated.
Reverend Foyster (Steve Furst) moves in, and the supernatural activities become even more violent, with a focus on his younger wife Marianne (Annabel Bates). As with Price, the film hints that Marianne may not be an entirely reliable witness (explored in depth in Roger Clarke’s book A Natural History Of Ghosts). ‘Something nasty behind the curtains’ strikes a child, and Marianne receives numerous strange messages scrawled on the walls, as well as mysterious bruises.
When the Foysters move out in 1935, Price takes a twelve-month lease on the house, bringing in a team of 48 volunteers for investigations in ‘controlled environments’, generating further publicity and book sales for Price but little concrete proof. Eventually, the rectory burns down again, one year after the event is predicted during a planchette session. But even with the building itself gone, the mythology continues to grow. A neat exchange between journalist Wall and his photographer (producer Tom Atkinson) sums up the legend they have unleashed. As Wall portentously observes ‘the end of Borley Rectory’, his colleague retorts, ‘Not likely – you don’t need a house to be haunted.’
An aptly chosen opening quote from author Stephen Volk observes, ‘The past is a tapestry of secrets…and ghosts whisper them.’ As the synopsis above may suggest, Borley is less a tapestry than a labyrinth of half-truths and mysteries, and of course, the witnesses have long since become whispering ghosts themselves. Sands’ narration wryly comments that ‘any ghost story tells more of its teller than the ghost’, and despite covering as much of the history as it can, the film ends with over four minutes of cards bearing additional information on the fates of those involved.
As this suggests, Thorpe’s work is not blind to the inconsistencies in the evidence and the faults of the eccentric protagonists. In many ways, the film successfully manages to have its cake and eat it. The script weighs up the evidence and valiantly attempts a balanced view, leaving the audience to make up their own mind. At the same time, the full gamut of gothic images are gleefully evoked on screen – dim hallways, dark rooms, storm-speckled windows, crows, owls and skeletons galore. The level of care put into digitally recreating the rectory inside and out demonstrates both how deeply in love the makers are with the fabled hauntings, and how determined they were to be as faithful to reality as possible.
Perhaps mindful of Price’s telling maxim that ‘people don’t want the debunk…they want the bunk!’, the film does depict several of the ghosts onscreen. With the exception of the phantom nun (Sabrina Dickens), who we do see in close-up, the spirits are suggestive and vaporous, recalling the shadowy forms familiar from “authentic” photographs of spectres, or the glimpsed supernatural antagonists of A Ghost Story For Christmas (BBC, 1971-). Some of these apparitions are truly unsettling, and all the better for their subtlety (though a brief eruption of almost kaleidoscopic occult imagery at one point also works a treat). Indeed, the visuals are remarkable throughout, creating an eerie, almost fairy tale atmosphere, with the lack of real physical interaction with the animated sets rarely apparent.
Borley Rectory may ultimately frustrate some with its lack of firm conclusion and its slightly uneasy mix of documentary and drama, but it surely cannot be faulted by anybody for style, passion, and ambition. It is a unique and highly endearing piece of work, and I hope it will not take another six years before we see more work from the talented Thorpe.
(Those of you who buy physical media might also like to note that the Blu-ray of the film is jam-packed with superb extras, including an entertaining making-of, lengthy discussions of the haunting, a great little documentary on the influential Usborne World Of The Unknown books, and three of Thorpe’s similarly distinctive short films.)