There’s a fine line between rip-off and homage. In fact, in my experience, it often comes down to personal taste. Take The Conjuring, for example. Nobody would call it a particularly original film, but whether you think it’s a rip-off of better haunted house movies or an homage to James Wan’s influences depends entirely on how much you enjoy it. So naturally, I went into Haunted Ulster Live with a bit of trepidation. The premise is nearly identical to the fantastic 1990s mockumentary Ghostwatch, so I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a shameless rip-off or a loving homage? I wasn’t sure, but I knew one thing–I couldn’t wait to find out.
Haunted Ulster Live was written and directed by Dominic O’Neill, and it stars a pretty big ensemble, including Aimee Richardson, Mark Claney, Antoinette Morelli, Dave Fleming, and Siobhan Kelly. It’s a mockumentary set on Halloween night in 1998, and just like Ghostwatch, it presents itself as a live TV broadcast of a paranormal investigation at an allegedly haunted house.
At first, things seem to go fairly smoothly, but that all changes when the crew brings in a medium. She claims to sense a malevolent presence before she even enters the place, and when she conducts a seance to contact the spirit that supposedly inhabits the home, all hell begins to break loose.
Right from the get-go, I found Haunted Ulster Live to be pretty intriguing. As a mockumentary, it stands or falls largely on the strength of its characters, and thankfully, every single one of them is awesome. The performances are all excellent, so I totally bought into this entire cast. They made me believe I was really watching a live TV broadcast from the late 1990s, so I had no trouble at all immersing myself in this world and in the story.
What’s more, there are also a bunch of times when the show goes to a commercial break, and we get to see what these characters are like when the cameras aren’t rolling. Some of them act more or less the same, but some are quite different. In particular, one of the broadcasters, a young woman named Michelle, seems like someone else entirely when she’s off-air, and the actress who plays her, Aimee Richardson, does an awesome job of switching back and forth between Michelle’s two personas.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, those peeks behind the scenes make this whole story even more believable. Real-life TV personalities can often come across as disingenuous, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that many of them just put on a show for the camera. So when Haunted Ulster Live incorporates that duplicity into its own characters, I, for one, can’t help but find it convincing.
On top of great characters, this film also has some really effective horror. Most notably, it does an excellent job of using what you don’t know to build tension and create terrifying mysteries. There are a number of times when you know something is happening in another room in the house, but you don’t know exactly what it is because you can’t see what’s going on there. Those moments masterfully exploit the principle that what you don’t know is scarier than what you do know, and they’re pretty damn creepy.
That being said, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Haunted Ulster Live isn’t all about the unknown. There are also plenty of scenes where the horror happens right in front of you, and when it does, it’s just as good. For example, during the seance, the medium tries to get the spirit in the house to speak through a little girl, and some of the things this kid says are absolutely terrifying. Simply put, writer/director Dominic O’Neill shows himself to be a skilled scaresmith all around, so I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Last but not least, I want to talk about the mythology in this movie. Most haunted house films follow a pretty standard formula. There’s a spirit terrorizing the house’s residents, so someone has to come in and find a way to get it to leave. But not Haunted Ulster Live. I obviously can’t get into the details, but without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that this film puts an awesome spin on the typical haunted house rules.
In particular, the story takes some really unexpected twists and turns in the third act, and for my money, that just might be the best thing about this movie. I was on the absolute edge of my seat for the last 20 minutes or so, and my eyes were completely glued to the screen as I learned what was really going on here.
That great third act cements Haunted Ulster Live as a worthy new addition to the haunted house subgenre, so I’m happy to say that this film is definitely more of an homage to Ghostwatch than a rip-off. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but it executes its scares well enough that those similarities just don’t matter. On top of that, it also goes its own way and crafts its own unique haunted house mythology, so by the time the credits begin to roll, I almost forgot I ever compared this movie to Ghostwatch in the first place.
Haunted Ulster Live had its world premiere at FrightFest on August 26.