The winter of 1973-74 was as strange a time as the last year has been. A bitter dispute about miners’ wages led to a strike which severely disrupted the UK power supply. While trying to tough it out, Edward Heath’s Tory government imposed emergency measures to limit usage … including the three-day week, television shutting down at 10.30 every evening (except for Christmas 1973, when as a reassuring late-night treat the BBC wryly screened Quatermass and the Pit) and rolling power cuts. This urban ghost story, written and directed by Corinna Faith, sketches in the background and evokes the 1970s mostly through hideous abuses of power and position and one bone-chilling blast of the kind of music that dominated the charts back then (‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, by Middle of the Road). The general angry, scary attitude comes from the fact that the real-life horrors that press in on the heroine are still all too prevalent … which gives the straight-ahead mystery/horror anecdote at the heart of the film a little more bite.
Bob Newhart once did a comedy routine on the phenomenon of someone on their first shift encountering a problem that didn’t come up in training – as a night-guard clocks on to the Empire State Building just before King Kong climbs it. Here, newly-qualified nurse Val (Rose Williams), product of a rough upbringing as an abused orphan and trailing a bad rep from a teenage scandal where she was persuaded by police and nuns to withdraw a (truthful) complaint against an abusive teacher, draws the night-shift at a grim East London hospital which has transferred most of its patients to another facility in advance of an expected power cut. Intimidated by a stern drill sergeant of a matron (Diveen Henry), ignored (or, worse, groped) by male staff, and hardly delighted to find her old school bully Babs (Emma Rigby, looking like an evil Lady Penelope puppet) senior nurse on the ward for catatonics to which she’s assigned, Val tries to keep her head down and get on with it. But there’s a furious ghost girl in the house, who wants her story to get out, and is seemingly as keen on tormenting characters she has a lot in common with – Val and young orphan Saba (Shakira Rahman) – as she is on getting revenge on those who have obliterated her even from memory.
The mystery element of The Power is on the thin side – you’ll twig the boss culprit early – but there are nice, creepy details as the ghost drops hints about what happened to her by wafting soot through the ventilators and influencing Saba into scrawling those always-disturbing exercise book pictures of darkness and doom. Faith makes great use of the cavernous, mostly empty location and segues from quiet creepiness and social embarrassment – suggesting that this is one of those character studies with spooky touches – into all-out, action-packed general gruesomeness and J-horror-styled hysteria. It maybe piles on the agony by overloading the protagonist with issues, but Williams is excellent in the lead – fragile but stubborn, and not instinctively superheroic when the lights go out.
For all its array of secure-in-their-station male abusers, it’s mostly a story about women who are too cowed to support each other. The cynical nurse (Nuala McGowan), an early reader of Stephen King, and the compassionate nurse (Gbemisola Ikumelo) are just as unhelpful to Val as her actual schooldays enemy Babs – who’s the sort of nurse who enjoys telling patients they’ve had their tea when they haven’t. However, there are sketches of different types of male uselessness from Charlie Carrick as the nice doctor with heavy glasses and suspect sideburns who blithely gets Val on matron’s shit list and Theo Barklem-Biggs as a nightmare version of Robin Askwith inhabiting his own Confessions of a Hospital Porter horror movie.