“Is Anybody There?”

June 3, 2009

In the British film   Is Anybody There? 10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner) is resentful that—his parents having turned their house into an old-age home—he has had to give up his room. He compensates by indulging his fascination with ghost hunting.

Edward operates in the style of British ghost hunter Harry Price (1881–1948), who famously had a ghost-hunting kit (see Harry Price,   Confessions of a Ghost Hunter , 1936). Price (briefly played in the movie by David Rintoul) employed a variety of gadgets, including “a sensitive transmitting thermograph, with charts, to measure the slightest variation in temperature in supposed haunted rooms” (see his   The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory , 1940, 5–6). Price also employed psychics or mediums, foreshadowing modern, faddish, pseudoscientific ghost hunting.

Edward’s own kit contains talcum powder, dusted on floors to record ghostly footprints. He also utilizes a tape recorder, placing it under the beds of dying residents in hopes of detecting otherworldly activity (but sometimes revealing very worldly secrets).

Enter Clarence (Michael Caine), aka “The Amazing Clarence,” a retired magician whose early dementia lands him in the nursing home—indeed in Edward’s former room just as he had hopes of reclaiming it. The brooding boy and bitter elder soon put aside their antagonisms and become best friends. Clarence teaches Edward some magic tricks, then sits with him in a séance that successfully yields spirit rappings and other physical phenomena.

However, Clarence, who wishes he could communicate with his deceased ex-wife to atone for having been an inadequate husband, is increasingly frustrated by Edward’s fantasies about the Other Side. He insists that when people are gone they are really gone, and he confesses that the séance manifestations were simply more of his magic tricks.

In time, in a poignant episode in which Clarence’s dementia conjures up his beloved (with all the illusory power of a séance “materialization”), the old magician achieves peace with the past. And Edward, in the end, learns to look not to an imagined afterlife but to life itself. Well-conceived, -directed, and -acted,   Is Anybody There? answers its title question with real power.