An English Haunting (2020)

An English Haunting is the work of retro filmmaker Charlie Steeds. It was shot in 2018 and is the fifth full-length feature under his Dark Temple marque. We watched it on Amazon Prime.

In my recent (very warm) review for The Sonata, I found myself grumbling the following grumble:

“As a horror fan, I don’t think there are enough films like this. Lots of films have the classic ghost story feel, and lots of others have goofy genre excesses. Very few offer both at the same time.”

Thanks to the famous hoaxes from Amityville and Enfield, the genre isn’t short of haunted houses, but they tend to be compact modern homes rather than gloomy mansions. At the other end of the spectrum, a film like The Little Stranger absolutely oozes the classic ghost story vibe but has very little ghost in it (that’s not to say I didn’t like it, because I absolutely did—but it’s more period drama than horror).

I often yearn for films that put uptight heroes in beautiful gothic settings and then torment them with Blumhouse levels of supernatural terror. Apart from The Woman in Black, there aren’t many examples of this in modern British horror. It’s why The Sonata was such a sight for sore eyes. It’s also my long-winded way of saying I welcome An English Haunting for the same reason.

Let’s get to the film at hand. Blake Cunningham (David Lenik) moves to an old manor with his wine-swilling mum, Margot (Tessa Wood). The only other resident is Margot’s estranged father (Barrington de la Roche) who is virtually catatonic. “It is what it is,” says Margot. “Free house, free place to stay—until the old bastard croaks. No wonder they’ve kept him in the attic all this time. What do you think? Spooky enough for you?”

These are among the first lines in the trailer and form a nice honest précis of the film. In a pitch-perfect opening, Blake and his mum are taken to Clemonte Hall in the kind of vintage car you’d hire for a wedding. The establishing shots are almost monochrome, with only the grass providing an elegaic splash of colour.

Very quickly—to quote the synopsis from IMDb—“ghostly goings-on fill the house with dread.” The resulting tale is a taut gothic drama that doesn’t hold back on the supernatural, and which, by the end, is piling it on with glee.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews that describe An English Haunting as “slow” or a “slow burn”, and I can’t say I agree. One of the things I love about this film is how quickly it sets out its stall. Within the first ten minutes, a toy train has rolled into view of its own accord. There are two very effective scares in the first twenty-five minutes alone.

In horror terms, the strongest set piece—for me at least—is the one where Blake repeatedly tries to turn off an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. That comes less than halfway through the film, which is why I don’t class it as a “slow burn” story. Despite being dense with ghostly goings-on (and, typical of the genre, weighing in at a lean hour-and-a-half), the film makes plenty of room for a gripping story and character development. The balance between horror and narrative is spot-on.

In production terms, the film is an astonishing achievement for this price point. Thanks to a potent blend of lighting, framing and score, An English Haunting absolutely drips with atmosphere. It looks (and sounds) like a much more expensive film. The story is anchored by two strong but very different performances from Lenik and Wood.

I enjoyed this film a huge amount and recommend it very highly. It’s a delicious mix of ingredients from a broad cross-section of horror, and the execution is first rate. If you’re in the right kind of mood, I think it would make a good double-bill with The Sonata. Enjoy!

(You can also read a recent review of the film from The Velvet Cinephile.)

About the author

My name is Ellis. When I’m not reviewing movies, I write short stories about ghosts. If you like getting scared in the woods, you might enjoy Deep Summer Magic, which is also available as a free audiobook.

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