Written by William Drew
Entirely fresh to the work of Charlie Steeds and Dark Temple Films, I approached An English Haunting with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, much like that evoked by the opening sequence. A 1960s Rolls Royce (I think, I know nothing about cars) approaches a grand old stately home. Inside the car are teenager Blake and his mum Margot. From both the car and the way they’re dressed, we know this is the 1960s and the grand, though ever so slightly dilapidated, estate couldn’t be anywhere but the English countryside (the clue’s in the title there really).
I mean, look, there’s a massive old house surrounded by empty private lands and here are two people who clearly haven’t been here for a long time. We know where this is going. The house is haunted to fuck.
To begin with the absolute straight-forward nature of this had its appeal. This was a horror film that wasn’t going to mess around establishing the character’s normal lives in advance. It was getting them to their destination asap so that we could start with them being haunted. It’s an opening that says “I know what you’re here for, let’s go”.
But as the beautiful old car pulls up in front of the beautiful grand old house and the matter-of-fact older female housekeeper, Mariane, emerges to greet Margot and Blake, I started to get concerned. It wasn’t simply that the set up was mired in clichés. That I could forgive. It was that the clichéd set up was being explained in such a clunky style. The way she trots out just the essential information we need in order to know what’s happening reminded me of a Non-Player Character in a videogame giving a player their mission.
It doesn’t help that it’s impossible to work out what the characters’ relationships are to one another from their tone or behaviour so you have to wait to be told stuff. Everyone acts like they’ve never met before so it’s impossible to tell which ones are supposed to be related and which are strangers meeting for the first time.
Mariane takes them to see Aubrey, an elderly man who appears to be in some kind of vegetative state. He’s the owner of the house and Margot’s father. Margot and Blake have been summoned because Aubrey’s last carer quit, saying that he frightened her. Blake and Margot don’t ask too many questions about this and Mariane leaves them to it.
At night, and always from Blake’s perspective, subtle daytime hauntings take on a more violent quality, in the spirit of The Haunting of Hill House. It’s in these night time jump scares that the film occasionally demonstrates what might have been. We’re regularly brought down to earth though by the dream sequences. These rely too heavily on the strange ethereal presence of Barrington de la Roche as Aubrey running around the grounds naked, while Blake looks on with the wind in his hair. More of then than that, they feel less “terrifying vision” and more “90s pop video”.
Back in the daytime, there are opportunities for the action to expand into the grounds and these show some gothic promise. In particular, there’s a strikingly atmospheric abandoned greenhouse. Blake goes there looking for his violin which goes missing after the first time he plays it in the house, only to discover it smashed into pieces and discarded on the floor. Had this been given weight and build up, it could have been chilling: an indication of what a malevolent force plans to do to Blake’s own body. But the pacing is all off and we aren’t sufficiently invested in the characters for it to matter. We’ve only seen Blake play the violin once and he doesn’t seem particularly bothered to find it broken. He doesn’t mention it again, nor does anyone else.
The violin was just an excuse to get him out to the greenhouse where he could see a mysterious figure. Who might that mysterious figure be, he wonders? Luckily, he immediately comes across an old tape his grandfather recorded explaining the backstory. How convenient!
Things proceed in this manner. The film has a couple of twists at the end and a few decent jump scares getting there but it never really immerses you in its narrative. It does serve as a powerful reminder that haunted house movies aren’t ghost-trains. You’re not experiencing the haunting yourself; you’re watching others experience it. So you have to believe and invest in those characters and their relationships in order to feel the catharsis of the haunting yourself.
Rating: 2 out of 5