Viewer Discretion: Documentaries present 'fake news' in very real way

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"Ghostwatch" (Shudder)

This 1992 TV movie is legendary in England, remembered as the British version of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast and shown only once on the BBC. It is routinely credited as the inspiration for the found footage horror genre — the makers of the "Blair Witch Project" say it's a major influence. And it works not just as a fascinating slice of horror history, but a surprisingly experimental and manipulative piece of terror all its own.

The idea is that this is a live broadcast by a BBC investigative team spending the night in a house that has been reported as haunted, along with the family that lives there. It unfolds like a live broadcast, so much so that you forget this is fiction, and you begin to be a little disappointed that all their effort isn't adding up to much. But it piles on in unexpected and exciting ways, with multiple layers of horror concepts grouping together to wallop you with intense fear.

"Ghostwatch" is a ghost story for those with patience. Half-way through, you might wonder what you've gotten yourself into, but the beauty is that all the mundane things that confront you, all the chatter that you begin to tune out of, all the details that seem more like panic talking that anything worth remembering, these all add up in the end. It's a finale that you could never have without what comes before it.

The real revelation is not the shocking ending, but the fact that every mundane moment that preceded it has been feeding you information that will lead to the horror. Sometimes fright builds in ways you don't realize.

With few effects to speak of, any chills rely on a casual foreboding, some sound effects, the pile-on of campfire-style legends, and a constant bait and switch of the idea of the paranormal.

Now put yourself in the position of the people who watched in 1992 and thought it was a live news broadcast.

In this era when narrative surprises are treated as sacred rights, when we invoke the "No spoilers!" command about television shows, something like "Ghostwatch" is an enlightening window to a world where television spoilers were virtually impossible. The broadcast system and the accompanying means of fan discussion and industry news were such that shock was still possible. "Ghostwatch" is a great little moment in history that fully delivers 25 years later.



"Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America" (RealEyz)


Also from 1992, this fake documentary by Craig Baldwin uses clips from old films to map out a spiraling conspiracy theory that focuses mostly on American intervention in Latin America, but it hardly sits still in that examination.

The conspiracy — or secret history might be a better way to put it — takes viewers from a planet on the other side of the sun all the way to Guatemala, winding through atomic testing and Watergate, reframing some of our most nefarious political figures as the only heroes standing up to an alien invasion. The real art of Baldwin's approach is how he weaves actual history into the absurdist one he has fashioned, where General Noriega and George H.W. Bush are both familiar to us for events that actually happened, but now also for the absurd story behind the story as presented by Baldwin.

In this way, "Tribulation 99" blurs reality as the best conspiracy theories always do. Not that they are ever plausible, any more than Baldwin's on-screen rant in plausible, but they are dizzying and do include enough of what we have seen for ourselves to ignite the possibilities in our brains. "Tribulations 99" is a tour de force that is still very relevant, examining a system of disinformation that is now widespread, and which argues every day to ordinary citizens that what is true is in actuality fake news. Craig Baldwin, we need you more than ever.

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