By David Dent
The prolific director Charlie Steeds’ latest offering is a rather different beast to the energetic Winterskin, which showed at last year’s Soho Horror Film Festival. It’s a slow burn, elegant English ghost story with a rather dark heart.
Blake arrives at a crumbling English stately home with his mother Margot. They’ve come to live with Margot’s grandfather Aubrey, whose house it is, having fallen on hard times – this is their only option for accommodation.
But their grandfather is bedridden and seemingly in a coma, hooked up to an oxygen supply. His last carer fled suddenly and, courtesy of the housekeeper, the strange Marian Clark, we learn that in return for providing a roof over their head Martha is expected to provide care. This revelation brings out the true nature of Aubrey’s daughter: she is a mean, pinched woman, who, once she accesses the property’s wine cellar, also demonstrates her alcoholic tendencies. “I thought you weren’t going to do that here,” says Blake, hinting at a history of life on the booze.
Blake meanwhile, feeling increasingly isolated, has been having visions of a young woman in the garden, and Aubrey shows signs of agitation. Blake also glimpses a shadowy figure in the house and has an increasing feeling that there may be four, not three people, occupying the mansion. And as we reflect on the film’s title, we ask who is doing the haunting, and who is actually haunted?
An English Haunting serves another purpose as a title – it signposts exactly what we’re about to see. The film’s events feel like the narrative of a well-loved spook novel, best enjoyed by an open fire with a glass of something to keep the chill at bay. The movie’s pace is deliberately slow and leaves time for the ‘onion skin’ of the story – the truth about Aubrey, the strange figure outside and the equally unusual one within – to gradually present itself. Michael Lloyd’s graceful, static camerawork – for much of the time anyway – adds to the stillness of the film.
One of Steeds’ greatest strengths has always been his scripts, often a weak point with low budget filmmaking. Not so here: the characters are drawn simply but effectively, with some fine performances. Tessa Wood does well as alcoholic Margot, her life reduced to a series of disappointments and frustrations. Steeds regular Barrington de la Roche is great here as creepy Aubrey, whose back story recalls the dreadful Mr Abney from M R James’s story ‘Lost Hearts.’
But it’s another of the director’s regulars, David Lenik as Blake Cunningham, who carries the film, an innocent man, struggling with a terrible relationship with his mother, who becomes fixated on uncovering the secrets of the house, even though it may cost him his life. Another fine offering from Mr Steeds.