Reality is often more frightening than make-believe. A fact which gives the new British horror When The Lights Went Out an added frisson of excitement.

According to a claim when the film opens, director/writer Pat Holden’s atmospheric chiller is based on true events. The Maynard family: Len (Steven Waddington), Jenny (Kate Ashfield) and their thirteen year old daughter Sally (Tasha Connor) move into a new house in a small town in the Yorkshire area of northern England.

Everything seems fine at first despite Sally being unhappy with the move, but her parents equate her reticence with being a ‘typical’ teenager. Even when Sally begins to complain of strange things happening in her room, her parents dismiss their daughter’s concerns, telling her she’ll soon adjust to their new life. It’s only when the bizarre occurrences spread throughout the whole house that Len and Jenny believe their daughter and realize that something has to be done.

This chilling tale of what was apparently the worst example of poltergeist activity in British history can be viewed from two angles. First, as a straight forward, old-fashioned, haunted house film: its sparing use of traditional horror fair—from darkened corridors, banging doors, moonlit fields and tree tops rustled by sudden gusts of wind—supports a genuinely disturbing air. Like the archetypal paranormal fright-fest Poltergeist , this film works because the victims are a normal, everyday family who the viewer relates to. Even more, it’s period recreation, unsettling realism, and constant attention to detail all add to the overall feeling of disquiet.

On another level, the film can be viewed as a horrific sociological treatise about Britain during the early 1970s. The majority of Britain tried to maintain some semblance of normality during this dark (literally, there were frequent power cuts) period in its history, and the moving depiction of a young couple struggling to make a better life for themselves and their daughter sates the viewer’s sympathy when evil spirits threaten to pull the family apart. Waddington and Ashfield are convincing as the overwrought parents initially bewildered and then distraught by the poltergeist’s focus on their daughter, whilst newcomer Connor is outstanding as the young girl at the centre of the supernatural hurricane.

Whether the story is actually true or not is, of course, up to debate. But if the Maynard family, their friends, and their acquaintances are believers, When The Lights Went Out argues pretty convincingly in their favour.


By Cleaver Patterson

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