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Non-Review Review: When the Lights Went Out

At its best, When the Lights Went Out feels like a cinematic throwback, almost like The Woman in Black. While The Woman in Black harked back to a period of classic British horror, the height of Hammer’s gothic schtick, When the Lights Went Out feels like an affectionate homage to the urban haunting movies of the seventies, like The Amityville Horror with a Yorkshire accent. Although the final third comes off the rails in a fairly massive way, there’s enough charm and nostalgia to keep When the Lights Went Out entertaining for most of its runtime. It’s not just the setting and the aesthetic that hark back to the seventies, but also the tone and the mood.

I hope she’s not left hanging…

In many respects, The Amityville Horror led to a new type of horror film, reinvigourating stories of the nuclear family unit fighting off unholy terrors. I believe that Stephen King made the argument that The Amityville Horror was the first true economic horror, a ghost story predicated on the very real fear that a nuclear family might not be able to economically sustain itself. The fear over a substantial investment in a house manifested itself in literal demons, as the family home became something of a sinister trap, a cage waiting to collapse in on its residents.

When the Lights Went Out very astutely understands this point. After all, there’s no better time for a resurgence in classic “economic horror.” As the family here contemplate abandoning their house and being moved to “the bottom of the Council list”, it’s easy to imagine quite a few people in their shoes. The movie takes its title from the periodic blackouts that would occur during the period, and it hammers home the idea of financial insecurity. If the country could not secure enough energy to sustain itself, what hope did the nuclear family have?

In darkness…

As the Maynard family move to their new house, the radio broadcasts new of the far-right manuevering to power. The morning paper warns that inflation is reaching a massive high. The father first encounters the co-habiting phantom in the house’s coal bunker. Could there be a more explicit reference to the British working class divide? Only a few years after this story was set, the coal mines would become a symbol of the class divide in British culture.

The Amityville Horror rather astutely used its economic themes as a means to justify the haunting. After all, I’ve spent many films wondering why the family would stay in a house like this. When the Lights Went Out answers the question by suggesting that they have no choice. Their money is so firmly invested in it that they have no other option. It’s telling that the father attempts to monetise the haunting, offering tours of his house for a pound. Even the local priest is powerless to help, fearing for his job and financial security. The Lutz family, at the centre of The Amityville Horror, notoriously exploited their story to great financial gain. One sense that the producers of When the Lights Went Outmight sympathise.

Book ‘im, lads!

When the ghost strikes, it seems to attack through symbols of wealth and status. It moves the family’s Bucking Broncho game, and the stylish seventies slinky. It thrashes the expensive-looking grandfather clock. It communicates via Etso-Sketch. If this film had been produced during the seventies, people would argue about the gratuitous product placement. Instead, the film uses them to underscore the idea of economic horror. It seems like the most materialistic elements in the house – the shiny, new, expensive stuff – is the target of this supernatural attack.

(Of course, the flipside of this is that it makes the ghost look deliciously retro. At its best, When the Lights Went Out doesn’t take itself too seriously, so I laughed when the creature pushed a slinky down the family’s staircase. “Just because a toy moved down the stairs doesn’t mean there’s a ghost!” the mother declares. Clearly she’s never had to untangle a messed up slinky. It takes supernatural powers to get them working. It does make the haunting a little hard to take seriously at times, as the whole film shouts “seventies!”)

Pillars of the community…

There’s a wry charm to the first two-thirds of the film, as the movie delivers conventional scares with a delightful Yorkshire accent. When her daughter tells her there’s a ghost, the mother replies, “There is in my arse.” We’re told that those sinister-looking woods out the back of the house are “well creepy.” It doesn’t undermine too much of the horror, but there’s a sense that the cast and crew aren’t taking everything too seriously, which helps to obscure some of the problems with the first half of the film.

The most significant problem with the first two acts of the film concerns the pacing. It’s a bit all over the shop. The creature seems to waste no time establishing itself, so we never get a sense of ambiguity, but we also miss out on a chance to develop the leading cast properly. It feels a bit convenient that the ghost is so intent on declaring itself to absolutely everybody, to the point where nobody seems to doubt its existence. The script does try to explain it, but it feels like there’s very little build-up, that things just start happening and keep happening, rather than ramping up to a grand finalé.

A Yorkshirean Haunting…

Which brings us to the second significant problem with the film. The last third is a mess. It seems like When the Lights Went Out can’t decide what it wants to be. A sombre haunting film, a paranormal thriller, an exorcist movie? Why settle for one, when it can try to be three? So we get a number of resolutions to the story in quick succession that don’t quite work, culminating in a ridiculous CGI-heavy sequence that really undermines the rather wonderful low-key aesthetic the movie had been building up until that point. It feels so generic, and so stereotypical, that it really just leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. Which is a shame, given the movie starts off as such an effective homage.

Of course, the problem is that the true story that inspired the movie – despite being the most violent haunting in European history – never reached a climax. The sinister hooded figure who haunted the real life Pritchard family just mysteriously faded away. The movie changes the name of the family, but keeps the back story proposed for the presence by Colin Wilson. Unfortunately, the movie has to construct a third act around the haunting, and that’s where things get a little too messy, a little too loud, and a little too cliché.

The last exorcism?

Writer and director Pat Holden does a good job until then. The image of a light swinging like a noose with a body attached is hardly the most subtle of recurring images, but Holden handles it well. The scares are very much in the spirit of a seventies haunted house film, so lots of jumps and sudden reveals and strange shadows or moving objects. However, Holden does it in such a way that it feels more like affectionate homage than cheap shock tactics. Jane Levick’s production design is superb, especially the design of the household with its decidedly seventies aesthetic. The mood of the film is greatly enhanced by the setting, and the movie captures the period – or, at least, our pop cultural memory of the period – quite well.

When the Lights Went Out is a decent little horror film that actually has a fairly solid opening two acts that are the perfect callback to classic seventies horror. Unfortunately, it can’t quite stick the landing, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot here to reward genre fans.

2 Responses

  1. I live in the town where this supposedly happened and been told the stories of what happened from being a little girl – really looking forwards to seeing this movie and see how the stories compare.

    • I did not know this Claire. Feel free to let us know what you thought of it – I’d love to get any insight you had, comparing what you heard and what’s in the film. (I know, for example, the entire climax was invented… apparently the poltergeist just went away, or so I’ve been told.)

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