Loosely based on a (supposedly) true story, When the Lights Went Out is a British horror written and directed by Pat Holden. It tells the story of the Maynards, a young family who move into their dream house in West Yorkshire, only to find themselves terrorised by a poltergeist. With the ghost taking particular interest in 14-year-old Sally, parents Len and Jenny soon find themselves trapped in a nightmare from which it seems nobody can help them escape.
The horror genre in recent years has been saturated with poltergeist movies: resolutely American efforts, these clichÃ©d bore-fests generally take place in old mansions, spooky barns and picket-fenced homes. So in many ways this film offers a refreshing angle on the genre. With its unmistakable Britishness and detailed period focus – the film takes place in a gloriously defined 1970s Yorkshire town – When The Lights Went Out tries hard to offer the audience something a bit different from the usual.
The casting clearly helps, with some reliably solid Brit actors such as Kate Ashfield (Shaun Of The Dead) and Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot, Gangs Of New York) – the latter tremendous in a supporting role as the stoney-faced village priest. Ashfield puts in a strong performance as Jenny, the protective mum struggling to deal with the poltergeist’s attentions towards her daughter. Anger at the ghostly presence becomes resentment towards Sally, then guilt, all of which gives Ashfield ample room to flex her considerable talent. But much needs to be said for Tasha Connor, who makes for an engaging lead as the awkward Sally: all simmering adolescence, with a vulnerability crying out for friendship. It is the maturity and balance of Connor’s performance that gives the film its real heart.
Regardless, it seems at times that the strongest character of When The Lights Went Out is the house itself. Owing to some superb art direction, every aspect of the Maynard’s home feels completely genuine (to the extent that one could argue the biggest scares are in the ˜70s interior design choices on show throughout). Holden clearly relishes this aspect of his film, with many key shots lingering on the period decor, while the excellent costume design works in tandem to create an perfect sense of time and place. Even the title of the film is a reference to the rolling blackouts of 1974, which – as you might guess – are milked for scares at the first opportunity. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the level of attention given to the period setting is in part a distraction from the weaker points of the film.
And there are several such weak points, mostly surrounding the focus of the script. Too much of the expositional dialogue is clunky and mechanical as the film establishes the family’s attempt to live alongside their ethereal housemate. This is a particular shame when much of the script elsewhere in the film sparkles with a real wit and familial warmth. Because once the characters are allowed to breathe, the dialogue sits more comfortably: most of it swimming in grizzled Yorkshire patter which is tackled enthusiastically by the cast. Craig Parkinson (Control) takes up a particularly entertaining role in this regard, his turn as family friend Brian being used as almost a comic foil to Len (Steve Warrington), Sally’s concerned Dad.
Unfortunately, the need for comic moments seem to frequently undermine the genuine scares, which would be less of a concern were not the film so tonally uneven. It often seems like we are one moment laughing at Len and Brian’s ghosthunting mishaps, and the next being told the details of the horrific murder forming the roots of the tale. It feels as though writer/director Holden has engaged too comfortably with the nostalgic family-drama feel of the film, often forgetting that he is also telling a harrowing ghost story.
It’s therefore no little surprise that the ghoulish elements of the film tend to be the weakest. Most of the frights, for example, are just too overdone to have much impact: from the mirror-reveal-shot, to the slow close-up that we all know is building to a jump, it’s simply not a film likely to get under your skin. Having the most clichÃ©d ghost type of recent times – a dark-haired, pale little girl – doesn’t really help the case. Indeed, once the charm of the setting and the earthy dialogue wears off, the obvious formulaic aspects of the film become harder to ignore. Despite the quality of the cast, the characters quickly feel familiarly generic: consider Sally’s schoolteacher (Martin Compston) fulfilling the ˜benevolent researcher’ role, and realise he is a straight transplant of Jennings, David Warner’s photographer from The Omen. Other attempts to rely on the standard tropes for this genre are no less noticeable, right down to the utterly predictable ˜twist’ midway through the plot, or the weak ending which noticeably fails to resolve any real arc for any of the Maynards.
When The Lights Go Out is a somewhat frustrating British horror, being often as commendable and original as it is tired and clichÃ©-ridden. It’s difficult to recommend to those in pursuit of truly original frights, although this is not to say that the direction isn’t slick enough to squeeze a few jumps out of the viewer. But the film’s concession to the tropes of its genre proves disappointing – more so when the script offers the odd glimpse of originality. Ultimately, the potential for a memorable British horror film is undermined by problems endemic of the genre as a whole, and it’s hard to see this effort standing out from the crowd. The indecisive tone ensures you’re more likely to remember this less as a memorable horror in its own right, than as a kind of Coronation Street halloween special.