A phantom child cranks up the chills in the slow burning but beautifully-shot, Gothic haunted house thriller, “An English Haunting”.
Graham Plowman’s haunting score sets the early 20th century scene as Blake (David Lenik) and his mother Margot Clemonte (Tessa Wood) arrive at Clemonte Hall. They’ve come to live with her bedridden, unresponsive father. He has been cared for by a nurse, Marian Clark (the excellent Emma Spurgin Hussey), who tells a rather disturbing story about how her professional predecessor recently vanished, and hasn’t been heard of since.
Blake’s hard-drinking, acerbic mother announces she doesn’t believe there’s anything unworldly happening in the house after the nurse’s story, even with her father looking “like some waxwork” after he drove his wife to “the brink of madness”.
“Spooky enough for you?” Margot demands.
“No, actually, it’s rather peaceful,” Blake replies, rather optimistically.
It doesn’t take long before this M.R. James-inspired tale begins to run through the tick boxes of a classic haunted house story.
Clemente Hall boasts a wooden toy train that trundles down a long corridor, empty rocking chairs that rock on their own, tape players that play without being switched on, self-opening doors, a kitchen sink that’s suddenly full of blood, and disturbing photo albums full of black and white portraits of their grandfather.
There’s also a phantom boy called Jacob who turns up around the house, and the grandfather starts drawing pictures of the house complete with a non-existent room.
As the unease sets in, Blake tries to get his mother to stop drinking, but it’s a losing battle. In one of the more moving scenes, Margot thinks she sees a vision of Blake’s father holding her hand. She then realizes she’s all alone — and there’s nothing in her hand but a bottle of wine.
From here, things get steadily creepier.
Sensing something is wrong, Margot looks outside and sees three strange male figures pacing towards her in the garden. They are dressed completely in white and wearing pagan outfits with antlers on their heads (referred to as the Three Kings in the credits). When she rushes out to investigate, they manage to get past her into the house. Meanwhile, Blake has found a black and white home movie camera detailing the events that took place in the house in the past, while the grandfather’s former nurse reappears and tells the two the truth about Marian Clark.
Writer, producer and director Charlie Steeds gives the film an atmospheric, timeless feel; replete with 1930s style clothing and hair and stunning cameo shots, like the closeup of the chauffeur’s white gloves on the steering wheel.
To great effect, he repeatedly returns to beautiful, tiny details, including the second strange appearance of the wooden toy train and the mysterious reveal of a murder weapon.
An English Haunting has its flaws.
It inadvertently veers on the side of camp, as when the grandfather starts speaking in Jacob’s voice, wailing: “I don’t want to die…” And the pace is slow burning to the point of stopping dead. The aforementioned silent three white figures seem to have wandered in from a different horror film, and aren’t nearly as chilling as they should be.
However, actors Wood and Hussey carry the story effectively in this interesting, if sometimes hammy, take on the Gothic haunted house coming to life — which if it isn’t as eerie as it could be, is every bit as beautiful.