By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Rose Williams shines as Val in an increasingly physically demanding performance that results in a powerful viewing experience, both in terms of the film’s gender politics and as a banger of a horror film.”
In early 1974, the Tory government in Britain under the control of Prime Minister Edward Heath limited electricity consumption for consumers in an effort to conserve power. This measure was a response to the reduction of supply in retaliation against a coal miners’ strike enacted to demand a pay rise. Essential services such as hospitals were ostensibly protected from these cuts, but of course, in practice these things are never so clear-cut.
It is in this context that we meet Val (Rose Williams), a trainee nurse on her first day on the job in a hospital in East London, an area riddled by poverty, in Corrina Faith’s horror film The Power, now screening on Shudder. Val is, at first, a sort of woman-child; she prays with all the simple gestures and almost clumsy earnestness of a little girl before she makes her bed with immaculate hospital corners, propping her favourite soft toys up near the pillow before she optimistically heads to work. Although dreaming of working in paediatrics (she has “a feel for children”, she says), her stern matron instead sends her to the gynaecology ward and establishes clearly to Val in no uncertain terms the hierarchical power system that govern the hospital, and that breaking those rules would be almost ruinous to her career.
And yet Val, no matter how well meaning, does so almost instantly, helping a lost and disoriented child Saba (Shakira Rahman) back to paediatrics, where she meets the charming Dr. Franklin (Charlie Carrick) who sees in Val her affinity for working with children. Demanding that the Matron relocate the young trainee nurse, the humiliated Matron punishes Val by putting her on the night shift in what is soon to be the otherwise almost abandoned hospital; because of the power cuts, most of the patients and staff, bar a few in the intensive care and antenatal wards, are being relocated to another hospital.
When the lights go out, Val’s nightmare begins and the double meaning of the film’s title becomes crystal clear. While ostensibly referring to the electricity cuts, as the film progresses we realise the relevance of the very words “The Power” refer even more strongly to a singular entity of control that dominates the world of the hospital. With supernatural horrors in sharp, escalating tension with even more extreme nightmares of a very worldly nature, the power that Val finds herself up against is one as old and as insidious as any from history: misogyny itself. Battling the ghosts of her own past with those of the present, questions of monstrosity are subverted, and the shadows are the last thing Val needs to be frightened of.
Rose Williams shines as Val in an increasingly physically demanding performance that, in tandem with Faith’s watertight screenplay and intuitive, powerful direction, results in an extraordinarily powerful viewing experience, both in terms of the film’s gender politics and as a banger of a horror film. Laura Bellingham’s cinematography is worthy of note here, also. While her work behind the camera on Romola Garai’s recent feminist horror film Amulet was one of the only highlights of an otherwise dismal entry (blinded as it was by its own libfem smuggery to its ghastly broader political messaging), working with a much better film and filmmaker reveals just how skilled Bellingham is, particularly when working in a horror context. Similarly, The Power would not be as fine a film without its suffocating yet brilliant score by Max de Wardener and Elizabth Berholz, the latter best known under the performance name Gazelle Twin, who brings her flair for industrial electro to the fore here in music that feels like a cross between Diamanda Galas and Goblin’s legendary score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
The Power is a film whose strength lies in its surprises, and to give too much away feels almost cruel, so precious and gut-punching are its increasing series of shocking revelations. Suffice to say, those revelations are subtly signposted throughout the film, and Faith has paid enormous attention to detail in how she lays the breadcrumbs for us to follow, luring us to where she wants us to eventually arrive. The Power is a masterclass of the contemporary feminist horror film, a movie that simultaneously looks back at the past to tell us urgent, important and, yes, some extremely uncomfortable truths about our present.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.