Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Enfield Haunting (2015)

1977. When the Hodgsons, a family living in a council home in Enfield, is terrorized by all kinds of poltergeist phenomena, Society for Psychical Research member Maurice Grosse (Timothy Spall) is called in to investigate. He quickly realizes that much of the activity seems to be centred around the youngest daughter, Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), who, we will later learn, happens to share the first name of his own dead daughter.

After the publicity blitz about the affair starts, the SPR sends the delightfully named Guy Playfair (Matthew Macfadyen) in to help Maurice. Well, they actually send him to debunk what is going on, for Maurice’s public belief in the things he experiences in the Hodgsom home seems like rather bad publicity to the organization. It doesn’t take terribly long, though, until Playfair also realizes the phenomena are very real indeed. In fact Maurice’s and his duty may very well be not to debunk what is happening but to help the family experiencing it.

All the time, the phenomena are getting worse, going from the usual moving objects and smashed up furniture to what very much seems like possession of Janet, and even to physical harm.

I’m really not sure if calling a story told in three forty-five minute episodes a mini-series instead of a movie hacked in three parts as the British Sky did with The Enfield Haunting as directed by Kristoffer Nyholm and written by Joshua St Johnston is a terribly sensible idea, but then, I’m not working in TV, so what do I know?

As even someone only very superficially interested in the history of psychical phenomena will realize, the series is based on what may very well be the UK’s most famous poltergeist case, specifically, it calls itself an adaptation of a book about it by the real Guy Playfair. How much the book or this film have to do with any actual reality, only the people involved will ever truly know, but then I’m not writing up a documentary but a pretty neat little horror series, so this question is probably neither here nor there.

There is a very typical mistake quite a few – particularly TV – adaptations of true (or “true”, depending on one’s philosophy and mood) tales of the paranormal tend to make. All too many of them, while going hog-wild with the characterisation of their protagonists and taking all kinds of shortcuts, eschew being satisfying narratives by seemingly going out of their way to not have thematic through lines and certainly no satisfying endings. It’s understandable, of course, for non-fictional tales of the supernatural are not really supposed to have a theme – life sure as hell does not – and usually just peter out somehow, somewhere.

When it comes to this decision of either making a “realistic” story or a satisfying tale of the supernatural, The Enfield Haunting goes straight for the latter, providing not only a dramatic, emotional ending but also building its story rather nicely on Maurice’s emotional involvement with the Hodgson family who clearly could use a non-horrible male in their lives. As they occur, the supernatural events invite him to treat them as a mirror for some of his own ghosts, suggesting a connection between the two girls named Janet that may or may not only exist because he cares for them both. It’s an important, and rather well written, part of the story that also involves the marital troubles between Maurice and his wife Betty (Juliet Stevenson) caused by the death of their daughter. It would be very easy to use this element of the narrative only to jerk out a few tears from the audience – and the series certainly doesn’t shy away from a bit of tear-jerking – but it is also part of the series’ complex idea of human motivation and connection. The inner lives of people, the series understands, are not single-lane streets, so it accepts complexity and ambiguity in them. So where you’d expect it to have Maurice and Playfair go through the usual believer/sceptic rigmarole, it actually portrays both men as believers and sceptics, depending on the situation, something that practically never happens in this sort of story, and which made me really rather happy.

It also uses this approach in its treatment of the supernatural as something that can be threatening and horrifying, and certainly very cruel, but also quiet and kind. Accepting ambiguities seems to be the modus operandi here, and I’m certainly all for it.

Mind you, there’s no ambiguity to the existence of the actual supernatural in the series’ world, but then, there are really only a handful of cases where keeping the supernatural absolutely ambiguous in a tale of horror is anything but frustrating and even a bit cowardly, and I’m pretty sure it would be pointless for The Enfield Haunting. At the very least, the film’s acceptance of the supernatural as a given does provide us with some very good set-pieces. Some of the scenes of Janet – and others – speaking with the voices of the dead are really rather chilling, and the sequence with the medium in the second part manages to start out as a bit of a joke yet becomes increasingly uncomfortable and tense, even more so because it starts as anything but. Series director Nyholm generally manages to keep even the more typical bits of poltergeist business interesting, often concentrating on giving them a physical impact that makes them feel real. These scenes are not, as such, original if your know your horror, but they are so well staged and scripted originality doesn’t come into it.

Nyholm and the script are very ably assisted by a fine cast. I was particularly enamoured with Timothy Spall’s performance that at first seems to be all facial hair and a very late 70s embodiment of growing old badly but that reveals a complex and humane soul. And when have you last seen a movie or TV show this interested in a guy who looks like Spall here that uses him as its actual hero? Eleanor Worthington-Cox is also particularly good, selling all elements of the role - the intelligent teenager, the literally haunted kid, the various characters that will speak through her, and the near brokenness of the final part – without ever laying it on too thick.

No comments: