Stories of suburban hauntings are two-a-penny. What makes this tale stand out is that it occurred not in America or in a gloomy, cobwebbed Gothic castle but in a blue-collar British council house. In Yorkshire.
It is the view of many commentators on the paranormal that the experiences of the Pritchard family from 1966 to 1972 represent genuine poltergeist activity. Pat Holden’s film goes for a loose adaptation of their claims and in doing so opts for entertainment over fact.
For a non-continuous period lasting a half dozen years the Pritchard’s home was plagued by noises, violent/mischievous poltergeist activity – sheets pulled from beds, a sleeping young girl tipped onto the floor – and, eventually, the materialisation of a figure later dubbed the Black Monk of Pontefract.
The haunting (as it was later described) made the Pritchards reluctant local celebrities. But the poltergeist vanished as suddenly as it had first appeared, leaving the family of four relieved, even if their house continued to bear the burden of a sinister reputation.
Writer/director Holden speeds straight into his haunted house drama and starts his manifestations immediately. Dispensing with much of the accepted detail of the Pritchards’ experiences – the family is renamed the Maynards – he links the malevolent spirit with a pre-pubescent girl and presents her as an energy source on which it feeds.
When the Lights Went Out depends heavily on mood, a retro 1970s atmosphere and some deliberately old-fashioned jolts. Whether it is actually frightening is a moot point. Aficionados of the “less is more” school of cinema will enjoy its understated sense of unease and sly humour. Hardcore horror buffs conditioned by gore and visceral shocks will doubtless find it wanting.
Holden scatters his film with references to other movies. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror are there to be compared. But this is a smaller, more intimate offering and should be judged as such. It is resolutely anti-Hollywood.
A film about family dynamics, it offers ensemble opportunities to Kate Ashfield, Steven Waddington, Craig Parkinson, Joanne Hartley and first-timer Tasha Connor which they do not waste.