Directed by Nick Murphy
Written by Stephen Volk and Nick Murphy
United Kingdom, 2011
The horror genre goes through phases, often flooding the marketplace with outrageous rip-offs of a good concept. In the 21st century, horror has been mostly found-footage or torture porn, all the time. It’s not often that something without excessive gore or ghosts who aren’t dark-haired girls, a la J-horror antagonists, squeaks through. 2012 has been a lucky time for horror fans who appreciate scares of a less bloody nature, what with CBS Films’ The Woman in Black and now another British entry, The Awakening. The Awakening, while not as successful as The Woman in Black at generating tension, is a decent and somewhat unnerving ghost story.
Rebecca Hall of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Town plays Florence Cathcart, an author and paranormal debunker. It’s 1921 in England, where quite a few people believe ghosts are everywhere due to the many millions of World War I-related deaths, and even more people want to exploit their grief. After a successful and dryly funny debunking in the opening sequence, Florence is visited by a boarding-school teacher (Dominic West) who wants her to explore the school for signs of a mysterious, ghostly child who’s literally frightened some students to death. Though she’s skeptical—Hall, among displaying many other fine qualities, is an actress whose face was built to express an almost smug level of doubt—Florence takes the trip. She soon finds that this case isn’t so easy to poke holes through, as she encounters more frights and trauma than she’d expected.
Director and co-writer Nick Murphy (Stephen Volk is the other credited screenwriter) does a solid job of creating a disquieting atmosphere in the boarding-school environment. But what makes or breaks drawing-room horror movies like The Awakening is the cast. A director can throw jump scare after jump scare at the audience, but if we’re not invested in the characters who are being scared, these are merely empty frights. Seeing as the second half of the film focuses almost entirely on the four principal actors—Hall, West, Imelda Staunton as the school matron, and Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright as a helpful student—it’s imperative that they not only be talented, but commanding enough that an audience would want to watch just them for an hour.
Hall is perfectly suited to play Florence, who uses her innate skepticism as a shield to block out memories of her recently deceased lover as well as even deeper pain. West, perhaps most loved in North America for his work on The Wire, is a suitable lead, a dapper yet haunted soul who wears his pain on his sleeve. Staunton and Hempstead-Wright have fewer notes to work with; neither is particularly creepy, but both do well with the few very ominous moments they have in the film. Anyone who knows her specifically from her role in the Harry Potter series may be pleasantly surprised to find Staunton a believable motherly character here; gone are any traces of the horrible Dolores Umbridge.
Some of the story’s twists and turns lead to unique scares, which is also necessary to make this stand apart from other horror films in the genre (mostly older ones that don’t traffic in blood and guts, being fair). Still, there are too few scenes like the one where Florence is trapped in a strange and unending labyrinthine hallucination, which is visually striking and legitimately freaky. In terms of common horror tropes, Murphy doesn’t always indulge in the stock convention of featuring loud, blaring music that accompanies jump scares, turning out to be a welcome if inconsistent surprise. More than a few times, we’re told exactly how to react via musical cues. Every time that Hall is menaced by the ghost child without a musical stinger, it’s extremely disturbing. Hearing her staccato shrieks, and just those, is a better way to jolt the audience than music.
The Awakening is delightfully old-fashioned, a strangely comforting thriller. It’s truly assuring to know that filmmakers don’t have to resort to copying new trends without any intelligence, or drowning their actors in blood, to create legitimate fright and unease. The film is anchored by a capable enough quartet and a low-key yet effective style behind the camera, able to pick up the slack when the script’s surprises become a bit too predictable. This film won’t break the mold, but is a fine way to let yourself get creeped out on a dark and stormy night by the shadows that appear in familiar places.
– Josh Spiegel