We’ve enjoyed an influx in strong horror movies in the past year or so, spearheaded by The Cabin in the Woods, but also including the likes of The Innkeepers, The Woman in Black and Sinister, just for starters. The Awakening definitely constitutes a step down from those efforts, but it also demonstrates the ways the genre as a whole has benefitted from them. After years of cynical torture porn and empty shock tactics, horror movies have finally remembered what it means to properly scare people. The Awakening does far better than it might solely by keeping that equation in mind. Hit the jump for my full review.
Indeed, it should more properly be defined as a ghost story rather than flat-out horror. (A subtle distinction, I know, but there it is.) It boasts an old-fashioned premise, a spooky Gothic house and a mystery that may or may not help vanquish the unquiet spirits at the heart of it all. To those tried-but-true elements, it adds a ringer: setting the story shortly after The Great War, as England mourned the loss of an entire generation to the trenches. It’s a time for ghosts, as the opening title reminds us, and the search for proof of them leads our plucky heroine into the dark corners of her own past. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) follows Houdini’s example of debunking phony mediums, having lost her faith in an afterlife along with the man she loved during the war. Then a skeptical teacher (Dominic West) approaches her with a fantastic story about a haunting at his distant boarding school. Intrigued, Florence hops the Hogwarts’ Express for a little round of steampunk ghost-busting.
For sheer terror, that premise can’t hope to match earlier haunted house stories like The Others and The Orphanage. Director Nick Murphy adopts a slow, stately approach to the material, where clues emerge gradually and shocks come few and far between. The script carries the intellectual weight to support such musings, aided by solid turns from both Hall and Imelda Staunton as the school’s worrywart matriarch. The Awakening lets us soak in the atmosphere and ponder the same questions as the heroine, with the answers waiting for a revelatory twist at the end.
In those terms, it works fairly well, despite a reliance on stock elements and a rather chaotic sprint to the finish line. Murphy keeps his underlying themes in the crosshairs at all times, delivering an interesting meditation on how Europe’s devastating war losses translated into lingering grief once the guns fell silent. Guillermo del Toro took on similar ideas in his superior The Devil’s Backbone, but this one finds enough rich material to justify the exercise.
What it can’t do is scare us, at least in any but the most run-of-the-mill terms. The movie seems to want its giant sets to do the work for it, trusting the general spookiness of an old English manor rather than any technical craftsmanship to provide the jolts. Combined with the old-fashioned nature of the story, it robs The Awakening of its passion, leaving it drier and more desiccated than it should be. Gorehounds will likely be bored to tears by it, while more high-minded horror movie fans need to hunt for its true pleasures. Those pleasures arrive to be sure, but they definitely take some coaxing.
Hall helps out a great deal and her slightly prickly onscreen presence keeps the film on an even keel. Even so, it can’t hope to match the power of The Woman in Black or similar haunted house stories from recent years. At best, The Awakening makes for an honorable also-ran, benefitting from the shift in genre sensibilities, but unable to elevate its game the way the best of its fellows have. I respect its quiet spirit, its atmosphere, and its commitment to larger and more interesting ideas. But with so many superior competitors out there these days, its comparative timidity makes it look like it’s standing still.
The Blu-ray itself makes for a decent package, though the image quality is far from spotless. An interview with Murphy and an informative behind-the-scenes feature talk at length about the film’s deeper themes, while a more expected pair of how-did-they-do that features explore the technical specifications behind the film’s production. A collection of deleted scenes and a standard-issue promotional documentary round out the disc.