“An empire of misogyny” is how former Irish president Mary McAleese described the Catholic church – and Christianity as a historical perpetrator of sexism and violence against women adds an interesting-ish layer or two to this otherwise run-of-the-mill but well-acted haunted-house horror. It’s set in the runup to the second world war and loosely inspired by Borley Rectory, the country manor once dubbed “the most haunted house in England”.
Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay is terrific as Marianne, a vicar’s wife with a rebellious streak (her bohemian “loose woman” past becomes crucial later). Marianne has just moved into a crumbling pile in the Essex countryside with her wet blanket husband Linus (John Heffernan) and their young daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce). The local bishop Malachi (John Lynch), a man who wears the huge gold cross around his neck like gangster’s bling, is clearly not to be trusted. And pretty soon things are going clank in the night.
The film’s scares feel pretty standard, with nothing new to add to the gothic haunted house canon. Marianne hears voices wailing in the walls; her daughter finds a creepy Victorian doll with gaping black holes where its eyes have been gouged out. Nevertheless, director Christopher Smith turns the screws with malevolent precision: scenes in which Marianne and little Adelaide see their doppelgangers reflected in a mirror are genuinely unnerving, as are Marianne’s violent hallucinations.
It all gets very silly, and there’s a naff go-nowhere storyline involving Nazis. But Brown Findlay holds it together with her performance of Marianne as the sort of woman who marches no-nonsense into the dark basement brandishing a torch to take on the ghosts of mad monks.