True stories adapted into film are seemingly everywhere nowadays. For every Paranormal Activity clone that there is, it’s easy to slap a ‘Based on True Events’ label on the film and give it extra weight. All of the events in these types of films are so familiar and so similar to what many claim actually happened to them at one point that chances are something in your bump in the middle of the night thriller happened to someone somewhere at some point.
The Black Monk of Pontefract is the true life tale from which this film takes its inspiration. It is regarded as the most violent haunting in Europe and is strange because of the apparition of a hooded figure that accompanied the poltergeist activity. The film is the story of what happened but moves the action forward to 1974 instead of the late 60s and is based on accounts from group studies, books and newspaper reports. Further weight is added because the director Pat Holden is the nephew of the woman whom the main character is based on and his mother was a witness to the activity depicted.
In the film the Maynard family move into a home that the wife Jenny (Kate Ashfield) is fond of that they can’t believe they have landed. Then things start to go awry, the daughter Sally (Natasha Connor) is plagued by the spirit of a young girl who died horribly and starts to suffer from a lack of sleep. Lights go off and on at will and the paranormal activity gets more violent and threatening as time goes on. The husband Len (Steven Waddington) struggles to believe what is going on and the wife is reluctant to move, refusing to be forced out of her home. Two exorcisms are performed and this only seems to anger the spirit further.
The film is a spot on recreation of the early 70’s with the fashions, wallpaper and speech patterns all being accurate and authentic. This lends an air of respectability to an otherwise all too familiar story. The film is also shot well by Jonathan Harvey with a haze of fog like a half remembered memory which makes the film look far more polished and loftier than its low-budget roots. The performances by Steven Waddington as the father and Natasha Connor as the daughter are the stand out roles here, backed up by authentic dialogue of the time and the region and the daughters budding relationship with a school outcast is also well-played and touching.
Kate Ashfield unfortunately as the put upon mother isn’t quite as good; it really needed someone capable of a bit more to deliver the range of defiance and terror but a lot of Ashfield’s delivery falls flat. Despite all the quality that went into the production, the script falls apart a bit in the second half. With all the creepy build up and sense of dread that the film expertly builds, the second half doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Instead of a believable and methodical conclusion we get a collection of scenes with only a vague connection and the finale is taken up by some admittedly good special effects but they seem out-of-place based on what has come before.
Sadly the odd duff performance and messy last half keep When the Lights Went Out from being anything other than an above average TV movie. Despite this it’s refreshing to see a British horror movie that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator with extreme gore or laddish characters and for most of its running time the film is a satisfying creepy entry into the pantheon of based on true events films.