Here we have a low-budget British body-possession horror about a religious zealot nurse with a mysterious past and a deeply damaged relationship with human sexuality. It’s the stylish debut feature from a young woman filmmaker, and it clocks in under 90min. And somehow I’m not describing Saint Maud??? The Power actually might work especially well for people who wish Saint Maud was more of a straightforward horror film. For me, they’re about equally great, but The Power‘s definitely a lot more immediately satisfying in delivering the genre goods and a thematic sense of purpose. The beauty of genre filmmaking is that both can be appreciated for their variations & idiosyncrasies without stepping on each other’s toes.
If nothing else, you can’t fault The Power for not having a knack for spooky atmosphere. Set during a series of planned power blackouts amidst labor disputes in 1970s London, the film is mostly staged in total darkness – save a few candles, cigarettes, and the red glow of generator lights. Even spookier, it’s entirely contained in a pitch-black hospital, during what the nurses on staff have deemed “The Dark Shift.” Our protagonist is an adorable, sweet humanitarian who’s immediately tossed into the spooky abyss of The Dark Shift her first day on staff. Her determination to Do Good and speak her mind in the face of a rigid, long-established bureaucracy immediately puts her in danger as soon as she enters the hospital – especially since her morally righteous prodding uncovers systemic sexual abuses committed by her higher-ups that have long gone unchecked & undisciplined. The ghostly happenings that result from that shakeup are both a supernatural repetition of that abuse and a means of revenge against it – a tactic foreshadowed by a fellow staffer reading Steven King’s Carrie in her downtime before the mayhem is unleashed.
I was a little worried in its first half that The Power would become a tedious exercise in atmosphere & metaphor. Once its more traditional haunted hospital scares emerge from the darkness, however, my patience was greatly rewarded. Its horror genre processing of childhood sexual abuse is just as righteously angry and viscerally upsetting as anything you’ll see in this year’s erratic gross-out The Queen of Black Magic; it’s just a little more careful to establish a main character the audience actually connects with before Going There, so we’re even more affected by her downfall. Looking beyond the surface details of their parallel thinking & timing, there isn’t much thematic or iconographic overlap between The Power & Saint Maud to make their dual existence redundant. Both films share a kind of 1970s auteur-horror worship that’s rampant these days but repurpose those same building blocks for entirely different ends. I’d mostly recommend Saint Maud if you’re looking for a deeply strange, off-putting characters study. The Power, by contrast, is for when you want an effectively chilling, old-fashioned ghost story.