Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Awakening: A Flawed Ghost Story

I love a good, well-produced ghost story. Movies like The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973)The Sixth Sense (1999)The Others (2001),) and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) are some great examples of what can be achieved in this sometimes overdone genre. The Awakening (2011) tries to evoke the feeling of those films, but only partially succeeds. Rebecca Hall (The Town) stars as Florence Cathcart, a woman in 1920s London who debunks fake spiritualists. It’s clear from the outset that she’s suffered a loss of her own, and that ‘s what drives her on her quest to expose these charlatans. She believes in rationality and science, and not the spirit world.

One day, a history teacher at a boy’s school asks for her help. The recent death of a student has been attributed to the sightings of a ghost; the staff wants her to investigate. Florence travels to the school, and rather quickly solves the mystery…or does she? Most of the students & staff leave for a holiday break, but Florence stays behind, feeling there’s more to the story. Strange events that can’t be explained start to occur. It appears that there may actually be a haunting at the school. Aided by the teacher, the school’s matron, and a boy who stays behind because his parents are away, Florence begins to unravel the mystery.  But the answers she finds may challenge her beliefs and change them forever.

Directed by Nick Murphy and co-written by Murphy and Stephen Volk, the movie looks great and has some eerie moments, courtesy of the cinematography by Eduard Grau. But we’ve seen this all before, and sharp viewers are likely to figure out some of the twists before the story’s conclusion. The metaphors (World War I’s horrors haunting the history teacher, for example) in the story don’t work, and aren’t fully explored. There are also a couple of characters that aren’t as well rounded as they could be; the creepy groundskeeper is pretty much a stock villain. The movie is well acted (especially by Hall and Imelda Staunton, as the matron) but it can’t make up for the faults in the storytelling, or an unclear ending that wants to have it both ways.

The Awakening is an admirable, but flawed try at an old-fashioned ghost story. We’ve seen more successful attempts at this type of tale in films like the ones I mentioned above. It’s not a bad film, but it could have been so much better. If you’re looking for a more recent spooky tale to view on movie night, try The Woman in Black (2012), starring Daniel Radcliffe. It’s an effective chiller that has some good scares, and a solid, well-turned story. As for The Awakening, the film is now available on DVD & Blu-ray and for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film:

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