The Power doesn’t hold a lot of mystery but thrives by situating its political and cultural critiques as blunt, horrific text.
There’s something sinister lurking in the dark in writer/director Corinna Faith’s new period horror film The Power. Set in January 1974, amongst a (historically accurate) labor struggle between unions and the British government that led to energy-rationing and widespread rolling blackouts, The Power stars Rose Williams as Val, a young, fresh-faced nurse ready for her first day of work at a sprawling, dilapidated hospital complex serving a poor community in inner-city London. She’s an orphan, raised in a group home not far from the hospital grounds, and well aware of how difficult life can be for wards of the State. As she’s shown around the hospital, with a stern head nurse giving her the lay of the land, Val tries her best to retain her optimism while confronting the grim reality of her chosen profession. After a meet-cute with a handsome doctor, Val irks the head nurse and is given an overnight observation shift as punishment. As patients are resettled in a different hospital and the majority of the staff leaves for the evening, only Val, a maintenance man, and a couple of other nurses are left to watch over ICU patients and newborn babies. This already intimidating structure takes on an entirely more malevolent patina as the lights go off one by one, only the steady hum and red glow of generators illuminating the ward floor.
Faith sets up her narrative with a brisk economy, contrasting Val’s genuine desire to help people with the hospital’s entrenched, hierarchical power structure and the less-than-pure motives of her fellow employees. Working with ace cinematographer Laura Bellingham, Faith emphasizes the large, cavernous spaces of the hospital wards with distant doorways and windows that become visual focal points, always suggesting some unknown, off-screen space, and carves out claustrophobic inserts using closets and glassed-in work stations. Dark hallways become twisting labyrinths, lit only by the single lantern that Val carries with her. Curiously enough, despite the copious amounts of dread-inducing atmosphere on display, The Power frequently works better as a straightforward drama than a supernatural fright fest. Scenes of Val traversing dark corridors grow tiresome quickly, but her conversations with snarky, world-weary co-worker Babs (Emma Rigby), who became a nurse strictly to find and marry a doctor, have a real snap to them. When young Saba (Shakira Rahman) is introduced — an orphan who doesn’t speak English and keeps fleeing the hospital, only to be brought back again and again — Faith makes clear that the film’s title refers not just to the ghostly presence haunting the hospital, but also to the interpersonal character dynamics on display. In other words, who wields power and who doesn’t. Val is a victim of very real abuse, which links both her and Saba to the spirit seeking revenge. After a plodding mid-section, Faith mostly abandons cheap jump scares and, at roughly the film’s halfway point, switches gears from a story about a haunting to a story about possession, allowing the narrative to become more diffuse and strange. It’s a much-needed jolt, as the spirit begins inhabiting Val and coercing her into carrying out her violent bidding.
There’s ultimately not much to the mystery here — almost anyone will be able to figure out the nature of the trauma that connects Val, Saba, and the ghost, as well as who the perpetrator is — but what really works is the righteous anger that Faith brings to the story, her willingness to call out the patriarchal power structures that enable abuse and give cover to the abusers. It’s not subtle; Val is verbally harassed almost immediately upon entering the hospital on her first day, and brief appearances by the creepy maintenance man keep the specter of sexual violence hanging over much of the proceedings. Faith is perfectly willing to state bluntly what others might squirrel away as subtext, but rather than becoming belabored, it instead turns this otherwise familiar genre exercise into a bona fide political text. It’s a useful movement from the now-familiar tropes and attitudes of “elevated horror” to something much more precise, and ultimately transforms a perfectly okay scary movie into an altogether more powerful, hard-earned catharsis.
You can stream Corinna Faith’s The Power on Shudder beginning on April 8.