The Power (2021)
In Corinna Faith's feature length début, a trainee nurse is haunted during a blackout. Ellis Reed reviews for Horrified...
We often take it for granted that, in years to come, people will be fascinated by the pandemic. We expect them to ask what lockdown was like and marvel at pictures of us with masks on. Some of us take solace in the fact that, if nothing else, we’re living through a period of great historical interest.
However, society can be surprisingly quick to move on from such times as these. For instance: less than ten years before I was born, the UK was literally running out of fuel. The resulting blackouts must have been extraordinary to live through, but they rarely come up in popular culture. Given the obvious link between fear and the dark, it seems odd that they haven’t become a commonplace of British horror – especially since, as M. R. James knew, ghost stories work best in the recent past, where they can balance ‘a slight haze of distance’ with ‘a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness.’(1)
The blackouts of the Seventies are a perfect fit in that regard, but surprisingly little is done with them. Before today, the only example I could think of is When the Lights Went Out (UK, Pat Holden, 2012), which – for what it’s worth – I think is underrated.
The Power (UK, Corinna Faith, 2021) takes this little-used setting and throws in a spooky hospital for good measure. Londoner Val (Rose Williams) is a timid trainee nurse, battling a lifelong fear of the dark. When she falls afoul of the matron, she gets the late shift as punishment, with just two of the wards running on emergency power. The rest of the building will be pitch black, causing Val great anxiety. To make matters worse, she’ll be working with a vicious nurse called Babs (Emma Rigby), who went to the same school as Val and knows her troubled past. Also present are two other nurses – both on the other ward – and a sleazy nightwatchman, who seems to have some history with Babs.
During the night, a dark presence makes contact with Val, getting under her skin in more ways than one. On paper, the supernatural part of the film is hardly revolutionary. She’s determined to unravel the haunting, but when she tries, her mental state is called into question. Her candle is blown out by an unseen force, which yanks her around the gloomy corridors. She struggles to explain bewildering acts of violence and self-harm. However, despite the use of familiar tropes, numerous things elevate the film over most of its peers.
First and foremost is a stunning performance from Rose Williams. From the very start, she radiates crippling anxiety, colouring even the daytime scenes with mounting dread. When the script requires her to have a seizure, she really commits to it, resulting in a physical performance that’s painful to watch. Self-contortions aren’t rare in supernatural horror, but this is one of the better ones – and if CGI is involved, it’s impossible to tell. The acting is strong across the board, with the rest of the cast bringing a diverse bunch of characters to life.
Secondly, the cinematography is superb. Even during the long opening, the light seems strange and unreal, adding that ‘slight haze of distance’ to the mise-en-scène. Long corridors are framed beautifully, making the hospital seem like a dreamy netherworld. When night falls, lamplight and gloom are used to great effect, justifying the time and care that are spent on establishing Val’s phobia. The red glow of the generator intrudes on some scenes, adding an infernal touch that isn’t overused.
Finally, the story and direction have a lot to say about real-world issues, in a way that lifts the film rather than overwhelming it. Much of this is done through symbolism rather than dialogue. At the end of one scene, Val’s face is reflected in a window, merging with a poster on the far side of the glass. For a moment, it seems as if a hand is clamped over her mouth, summing up her encounter with the matron. More than once, the camera lingers on a mural in the children’s ward, showing details that are imbued with significance. It’s a beautiful and intelligent piece of filmmaking, building to a powerful message about real (rather than supernatural) monsters, where the title of the piece takes on a double meaning.
In terms of fault-finding, I have very little to say. As far as the story goes, there are times when you’re confused about the detail, even if you’ve got a good handle on the overall mystery. Because of this, some people will find the middle act frustrating, but that’s a note on taste rather than quality. By the time the credits roll, the lingering loose ends have been tidied away, so it depends on your appetite for waiting.
Also, the climax of the film is possibly more on-the-nose than it needs to be. Not because there’s anything wrong with the message – quite the opposite – but because the film does a lot of work to express itself in an organic way, reducing the need for such an explicit coda. That’s a minor criticism of a film that uses the horror toolkit as a way to engage with a particular set of real-world issues, in a way that distinguishes it from other genre fare.
To conclude, The Power is an impressive début from writer-director Corinna Faith. Her powerful message is supported by first-rate acting, beautiful cinematography and solid genre thrills, all performed in a great horror setting. The middle part of the story is bewildering, but interest is carried by a mesmerising lead performance, and the climax is clear and satisfying. Recommended.
 Ghosts & Marvels (M. R. James, 1924)
The Power was released as a Shudder exclusive on 8 April 2021.
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