If you want to finetune a horror movie to my taste, you can either make it a period piece or set it in a hospital. The Power does both these things, so we’re off to a sterling start.
Better yet, writer/director Corinna Faith hinges the movie’s entire atmosphere on 1970s set dressing and accompanying hospital rooms and corridors, each littered with doors leading into seeming voids, and in darkness seem off-puttingly long. It’s the correct choice, a perfect environment to take the pure Val (Rose Williams) and ruin her evening. And what a setting! London, 1974, during the miner’s strike that led to evening blackouts – and Val, ever earnest and wishing to further understand the links between poverty and wellbeing, must prove her worth as a nurse to the hospital’s matron (Diveen Henry) by working the “dark shift.” As this is a horror movie, we can assume the barebones staff working through the darkness aren’t going to bide their time playing chess.
The Power‘s bones are very good, and the first 15 minutes or so do an excellent job establishing a general sense of ‘off-ness’ within the hospital, and establishing that Val is a protagonist I will feel quite bad for when terrible things start happening. There’s immediate tension, helped by an excellent motif in the sound design wherein the soundscape fills with crackles and droning noise as Val approaches dark closets and rooms.
Things get exciting when the hospital’s lights shut off, quickly enveloping Val in a darkness we’re well aware probably contains unsavoury things, and The Power keeps things in a consistent unnerving mode. Val’s an endearing protagonist, and has a purity that makes anything terrible happening to her all the more affecting. Unfortunately, this is also where The Power runs into something of a wall – you see, it never achieves much beyond that mode, and in fact becomes gradually less scary as the movie starts showing its true hand. Faith has a grim story to tell, but there’s a lightness to everything, it all feels a bit less serious and grave than the themes suggest it ought to. Case in point: most supporting characters are eclectic and theatrical, usually speaking in quips – and while that’s good for a haunted hospital movie that wants to be fun, it’s considerably less effective for ones that delve right into “oh shit” topics like The Power does.
There’s also the problem that we don’t have a sense for what’s happening narratively until the last half of the film. I don’t mean this as in it’s a slow-burn, unravelling a grand narrative that pays off in the end. That would be reasonable and something I can’t clock as much. Rather, The Power feels like it’s going through a rolodex of things that could each be The Point. At the beginning, you think it’s going to be a tale of poverty and the effects of political ineptitude, tying into the blackouts themselves and suggested as much by Val’s motive for becoming a nurse. Then you get the sense the movie will tie into the misogyny of the time period. It kind of ends up doing all that by the end, but somewhere around the midpoint the movie becomes about child abuse and plows full steam ahead on that, largely abandoning those prior two topics. It examines abuse in a fine though superficial way, relying more on the inherent horror of it than much else.
Aside from that, the hospital sets are terrific and fine-tuned for scary times, and Val’s face is often softly lit amongst the blackness, emphasising her routinely terrified expressions, and it all works to conjure that tense atmosphere I mentioned before. I ran into an issue – and I don’t know whether this is a Shudder (of which The Power‘s an exclusive) fault or a filmmaker fault – where said darkness was quite compressed, making its varying shades of blackness distractingly pixelated. I’d like to say this added a sense of grittiness to the proceedings and therefore heightened the movie’s spook factor, but alas, it just ended up bothering the hell out of me and making me yearn for glorious smooth gradients.
None of this is to say that The Power‘s bad. It isn’t. It’s competently made and boasts some excellent sequences of growing tension. It’s bursting with great ideas, the potential for something great is staring us in the face, but its too light on its feet to buckle down and manifest these ideas into something special in the horror realm. I found myself wanting more, and that can interpreted in both a good and bad sense.