The ghosts aren’t friendly in “The Enfield Haunting,” a three-part miniseries acquired by A&E, clearly hoping to scare up viewers leading toward Halloween. Hyperbolically described as “a terrifying dramatization of the best documented paranormal incident in history,” the story has influenced so many movies and TV shows as to somewhat blunt its impact, which is actually distinguished less by thrills than its quieter elements, including Timothy Spall as the unlikely hero and devotee of the paranormal, brought to the topic by personal grief. Nicely executed, the most glaring absence, frankly, is any sort of closing script about these events’ aftermath.
Derived from a book written by one of the participants (played by Matthew Macfadyen), this “Haunting” happened in 1977, in an otherwise nondescript house in northern London. The poltergeist in question seemingly took special interest in an 11-year-old girl, Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), in the most disturbing interludes speaking through her and occasionally tossing her about, in sequences that can’t help but evoke memories of “The Exorcist.”
Assistance comes in the former of a relative novice affiliated with the Society for Psychical Research, Maurice Grosse (Spall), who, along with his wife (Juliet Stevenson), hasn’t recovered emotionally from the death of his daughter. While he welcomes the arrival of Macfadyen’s Guy Playfair, a renowned expert on the paranormal, Maurice is surprised by Playfair’s skepticism, and later — as the evidence mounts — concerned about his motives in allowing the ordeal to continue, seemingly putting the family at risk while he seeks further documentation.
Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm from a script by Joshua St. Johnston, the production (roughly the length of a longish feature with commercials lopped out) does yield some genuinely spooky moments, such as the protracted tension in a sequence where one of the kids goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night. That said, this is more a psychological study than conventional horror, as Maurice — with all that pain and grief pent up inside him — works through those issues as he seeks to help the girl, who happens to share the same name as his late child.
Like any of these tales about malevolent spirits allegedly rooted in reality (a la “The Amityville Horror”), those “true story” credentials — along with the fact that this case provided inspiration for fictionalized films — add heft. That said, the movie lurches along without a clear sense of what it will take to exorcise the ghost, and the ending feels a little too Hollywood-ized for its own good, especially without any coda regarding what followed. (For those too lazy to do the Googling, the Daily Mail ran a fairly exhaustive piece about it earlier this year.)
What marginally elevates the material, albeit in a non-levitating way, are the meticulous attention to detail and realistic performances, including Worthington-Cox as the beset child. The Brits also have a way of not overly milking such fare, as the three-part package feels about right. Throw in fascination with the paranormal, and the acquisition should pay off for A&E, as even those harboring doubts as to whether the people involved really saw a gh-gh-ghost should conclude “The Enfield Haunting” is pretty g-g-good.