When The Lights Went Out (2013)

Directed By: Pat Holden
Written By: Pat Holden
Starring: Kate Ashfield
  Nicky Bell
  Alan Brent
  Tasha Holden
When The Lights Went Out

Nothing makes me roll my eyes at a horror film poster quite like the phrase “Based on True Events”. It always makes me think of Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity which starts out creepy enough, but ends up in a spectacular farce that involves the team of paranormal investigators building a glass replica of the possessed woman’s house so that they can freeze the ghost in liquid helium because apparently that works on ghosts. Maybe it does. I’ve never tried. Maybe I should. 

When the Lights Went Out is based on the case of the Black Monk of Pontefract, which is debatably one of the most violent poltergeist cases in Europe. The Maynard family (not the name of the family in the Black Monk case…for whatever reason) move into their new council house in Yorkshire. After that, it isn’t long before things start moving around, lights start playing up, and odd noises are heard. At first, it is only the young daughter, Sally, who is witness to these events, but it isn’t all that long before the rest of the family begins to feel its presence too…

As far as spookiness goes, When The Lights Went Out is simply superb. The poltergeist activity is more typically creepy and ominous than it is out-and-out furniture throwing and ghostly apparitions – kind of like the original The Grudge, before it got retarded. When The Lights Went Out feels like a more refined, more realistic version of Insidious (and I loved Insidious).  The slowly swinging lamp at the top of the stairs is genuinely creepy…and the section in which Len (the father of the family) is accidentally trapped in the coal cellar with a unseen, evil entity is one of the tensest and most horrifying ghost sequences I’ve ever seen on film. 

Sally, the daughter of the Maynard family, is the focus of a lot of the paranormal activity, and most of the narrative. As the haunting progresses, she gains no respite…harrowed at home and ostracised at school, she finds a friend in the local school “weirdo”. Their friendship is endearing, and at times, almost heartbreaking. It’s a sad fact that many of the victims of hauntings and poltergeists do find themselves shunned by former friends and neighbours, whether they genuinely believe to be cursed, or simply because they think they’re making it all up – as certainly happened to the Hodgson family during reign of The Enfield Poltergeist, and the Pritchards during the haunting this film is based on – and it was nice to see a horror film that actually touched on that. It gave the family deeper characterisation, rather than just being relegated to ghost and special effect fodder. 

As is often the case with ghost story films, there’s only so long they can stretch it out before there has to be an action-packed coda, and When the Lights Went Out sadly also suffers from this. The sub-plot to get the vicar involved is played for cheap-laughs, and the attempted exorcism feels rather hack from start to finish. A shame, really, as it was all going so well until then. There’s also another scene after that that feels even more unnecessary, as the producers try to squeeze another scream in, when it would have been much better just to have left it alone.

Ghost stories do not (with a few notable exceptions) do particularly well as films, as what makes them work as either novels, short-stories or campfire style urban legends is that they are usually unexplained, often half-glimpsed, with subtle shivers rather than big screams. When The Lights Went Out does a very good job of getting this to work on the big screen, but the ending is a real disappointment.  The king of ghost stories is still Australia’s Lake Mungo, but When The Lights Went Out is definitely still worth watching for all horror fans.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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