So-called “mental hygiene” filmstrips gained popularity after WWII and were main sources of instruction through the 1980s. These films, often unintentionally hilarious, were meant to offer guidance for children and teens, ranging in topics from sex education, safety, drugs, dating, social etiquette, and physical and mental health topics. Frequently, these films used scare tactics; other times, they were just scary.
“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water,” threatens Donald Pleasence in a voice-over at the top of this brief British public information film from 1973. Meant to warn children away from being foolish around water, it seemed to scare them away from water completely.
Commissioned by the Central Office of Information in the hopes of combating the worryingly high number of child drownings, LONELY WATER was one of several drowning PSAs shot in Britain in the early 1970s, but this one was certainly the darkest.
Reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL, the film scarred British children of the time, gaining it something of a cult status. In 2004 it was voted among Channel 4’s “100 Greatest Scary Moments,” and in 2006 it was voted the fourth-favorite public information film in a BBC poll.
The spirit is portrayed as an ominous grim reaper-like character, who seems to derive pleasure from foolish children drowning themselves. “No one expects to find me in ordinary places,” the spirit warns. In this case, ordinary places seem to be mud pits and watering holes, surrounded by rusted cars and appliances, left behind after some sort of apocalyptic event (I assume).
While most “hygiene” films generally kept a more lighthearted tone, and had an adult to explain why they shouldn’t do the things they do, LONELY WATER seems to take a more perverse stance. It doesn’t seek to inform; it only seeks to terrify. “Show-offs are easy; unwary are easier,” the spirit mocks as he eagerly awaits a child to slip and fall into a body of water.
The spirit is disappointed by sensible children who see a child drowning and rush to save him. He has “no power over them,” and disappears, leaving only his cloak behind. As an odd way to end this piece, the children who saved their drowning friend rush to find something warm to wrap him in. They find the spirit’s cloak, but then yell “ew!” and throw it into the water. Did the spirit leave behind some sort of ectoplasm? Being thrown back into the water seems to make him happy. As the cloak sinks into the water, Pleasence warns, “I’ll be back.”