There is something vaguely magical about Borley Rectory (2017). Ashley Thorpe’s animated “documentary” details a series of strange events that occurred over almost a century, from the mid-1860s through to the building’s demolition in 1944. These events provided inspiration for numerous works of film and fiction, including Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and the subsequent films adapted from and influenced by that work. Thorpe bases his story on a source more notorious than notable, an account by the renowned psychic researcher Harry Price in a 1929 edition of the Daily Mirror. Although Price’s writings have been largely debunked as fake, the piece brought the rectory to the public’s attention and the occurrences passed into legend.
But more interesting than the tale at the heart of Thorpe’s film, is the way in which he tells it; a spookily ethereal ghost hunt that impresses so strongly as to overtake the purported truth behind the mystery.
Not to dwell on the murky history of the rectory too much, as the film does a decent job of recounting the necessary facts (although we’ll come back to this later), Borley Rectory documents the ghostly experiences of several of the building’s residents. And as the property is often referred to as “the most haunted house in England,” there is no shortage of material. Footsteps in the halls, a ghostly apparition that resembled a nun in the gardens, suspicious deaths; all fuel the rumours and gossip surrounding the rectory that add depth to the legend.
The real interest here is in how Thorpe has constructed his film. Resembling a period horror from the time of Price’s visit, and highly stylised to emphasise that aesthetic, everything in Borley Rectory was filmed against a green screen. This allowed Thorpe to follow a linear documentary format while adding supernatural foreboding through CGI hauntings, rendering the finished film a visual delight of grainy black and white that delivers atmospheric intrigue. Strong performances from author Jonathan Rigby as Price himself and Reece Shearsmith in a quirky, if under-used, role as the Daily Mirror reporter lend credibility, and you’re left at the end with a sense that you’ve watched a passionately made, deeply personal film.
The issues stem from Borley Rectory’s running time. Originally a short film, and here a sprightly 75 minutes including credits, this feels like an all-too-brief visit to such an icon of supernatural investigation. Elements of the residents’ stories feel cast aside too quickly, as the narrative guided by Julian Sands’ eloquent voiceover needs to advance at a pace to cover all the necessary points and adhere to, what we assume, were strict budgetary restrictions.
That said, for any fans of the supernatural Borley Rectory remains a must-see. It is a strikingly beautiful, if somewhat factually frustrating account of events that may or may not have befallen one house in Essex, England. Seek it out, and revel in what is a respectful homage to films of a bygone age, but be prepared to come away keen to learn more.