Corinna Faith’s The Power is, on its surface, the kind of rickety old ghost story we’ve seen a million times over. Figures lurk in the darkness and frequently grab at the long-suffering protagonist, who’s just trying to do her job and make it through the night. Blackness seeps from the walls. And yet, at its core, this is a story about how the wounds of abuse often impact our lives indefinitely, suggesting there are no easy answers when it comes to solving these kinds of traumas but, if women continue to speak up about them, at least there’s less chance others are suffering in silence.
The setting is 1974 London, when a series of real-life blackouts were enforced by the government to counteract a devastating economic crisis. This essentially meant the city was plunged into darkness at a certain time each night, not emerging until the morning-time. Faith presents this information onscreen, early on, which is handy for setting the scene. Her protagonist is Val (U.K. TV star Rose Williams), a young woman plagued by nightmares of a sexual assault she endured as a child who’s so terrified of the dark she wakes up from one such bad dream and turns on every light in the room.
Rose is a nurse in training and, in keeping with another recent nurse-led horror story, she’s also super religious. It’s here the comparisons to Rose Glass’s esteemed Saint Maud end, however. Although an inner struggle claws at Rose, Faith also presents what happened to her all those years ago as symptomatic of a larger problem. Rose is an orphan, but her spirits have not been dampened by her hardships. Indeed, she wants to give back to the community in which she was raised, hence why Rose rocks up to the local hospital for her first shift full of the joys of servitude.
Hospitals are creepy enough as is, particularly once this one has gone dark – a sequence of a hallway in which Rose is standing systematically losing light is one of the strongest in the entire movie – with the various creaks and moans emitted from every unseen corner. Likewise, the dark, sooty residue leaking out of the vents suggests a rot at the core of the building itself. This is also a patriarchal setup in a sexist society, where doctors and even the handyman have more power than the nurses could ever dream of. With deafening clarity, the true meaning of the film’s title lays itself bare.
Faith has said she was inspired by the idea that spirits can’t neatly be put to rest at the end of female-led ghost stories, because the landscape has changed to such an extent that expecting survivors of sexual assault to simply be “healed,” whatever that means, isn’t realistic anymore. The Power is an interesting proposition, then, because it seeks to marry the classical elements of a ghost story with the real-world trappings of an assault survivor story, warping the narrative in such a way that the film becomes less about a haunting and more to do with Val finding her voice.
Gaslighted by her (female!) colleagues into acting as though nothing bizarre is going on in the darkness, before they turn on her and blame the newcomer for the strange occurrences despite the fact she is clearly the victim, Faith, who also wrote the script, confidently takes on many different disparate elements to get at the core of why women stay quiet. There’s a sweet-natured doctor who seems to hold the key to salvation, as well as a tough matron who makes life harder for Val but might understand her struggle more than she’s letting on. No character is one-dimensional here.
The location is terrific, all crumbling corridors and dilapidated wards that, let’s face it, would be uncomfortable to work in even if the lights were on constantly. This is the second workplace movie in as many weeks that features a young woman struggling through a godawful first shift, but in the case of Canadian horror-comedy Slaxx (also released on Shudder), the focus was on carnage and mayhem. The Power is quieter, its encroaching atmosphere thick with dread. There are some schlocky moments, as expected with this kind of old-school single location fare, but they’re few and far between. If anything, the real scare appeal comes more from the hideous abuse than the ghost.
Possession isn’t necessarily presented as a bad thing either, suggesting there’s strength in numbers and women can be better heard when they find the strength to speak up together. Although The Power is derivative in certain ways, particularly in how the jump scares are set up, there’s plenty to set it apart too – not least the predominantly female cast and emphasis on brooding tension over all-out shocks. If it looks a bit like a TV movie at times, The Power can be forgiven for flattening things down because it gives the proceedings a muckier, more real-world feel.
The performances are great, particularly from Hollyoaks alum Emma Rigby as a mean girl who chastises Val for ruining “the poor man’s” life who abused her. Women aren’t let off the hook here, rather Faith establishes how everybody needs to work harder to give victims a voice, instead of simply relying on them to speak up despite being forced back at every opportunity. The star of the show, of course, is Williams who imbues Val with a real sense of decency without making her a saint – watching her crumble into a mess, her prim and proper hat cast aside, is immensely satisfying.
Young Shakira Rahman makes a major impression too, as young charge Saba, the only kid left in the hospital overnight with the nurses who might hold the secret to what’s really going on inside its walls. There are no easy answers here, and Faith makes it clear that, although Val finds common ground with Saba, they’re not the same person and their experiences aren’t easily comparable. However, it’s by joining forces that they’re able to fight back against the true villains running wild in what should really be a safe environment for both women.
As with the best ghost stories, the real problem isn’t a vengeful spirit but the humans running riot without fear of the consequences. Faith has stated that writing The Power allowed her to speak up in a way she wouldn’t have been able to in years past, and it’s fitting that the film is emerging during a time of restless upheaval, when more and more people, and especially women, are finding the courage to fight back against their oppressors. The Power functions as both an indictment of a patriarchal society and a study of a survivor finding the strength to take down the oppressors instrumental in keeping that society afloat. It’s also a bloody good ghost story, too.
Catch The Power exclusively on Shudder from April 8, 2021
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Corinna Faith
Writer(s): Corinna Faith
Stars: Rose Williams, Shakira Rahman, Charlie Carrick, Diveen Henry, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Nuala McGowan, Emma Rigby, Theo Barklem-Biggs
Release date: April 8, 2021 (Shudder)
Studio/Production Company: Air Street Films
Run Time: 92 minutes