Retro Review: THE AWAKENING (2011){1}

Last year’s quiet treat known as The Woman in Black proved that there’s still a little energy left in the horror sub-genre we’ll call “old-school British creepiness” for the time being, and while the inclusion of Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) was no small part in that film’s success, the end result was an admirably old-fashioned, low-key yet creepy, and visually impressive piece of work. And yes, there is a sequel on the way. Until that flick shows up, here’s another slice of 1920-ish “things go bump in the night” sort of horror tale.

The Awakening (no relation to the silly mummy movie from 1980) is about a woman who makes her living as a professional debunker of all things allegedly paranormal. Young, beautiful, highly intelligent, and already a published author, Ms. Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is probably the finest in her field. The setting is London of 1922, and Ms. Cathcart (fresh from a rather clever charlatan-skewering) is invited to visit a distant boys’ school because, well, a recent death has uncovered the unavoidable truth: there’s a ghost running loose in this school, and Mr. Robert Mallory (Dominic West) wants it explained, removed, or otherwise exorcised.

Thus begins a quiet and familiar but consistently enjoyable ghost story that, truth be told, has a lot more in common with The Others and The Devil’s Backbone than it does with The Woman in Black. A skeptical hero(ine) in a spooky movie is often a fun idea; the audience knows something creepy is afoot, even if the characters do not, and this allows filmmakers to play some games with the audience. Ghosts are scary, but plain old people are usually scarier. Director Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk seem intent on keeping the characters to a minimum, the plot threads unsticky, and the presentation refined and (very) beautiful to look at.

Horror fans will appreciate two of three sequences in particular (especially one involving a freaky dollhouse), and while The Awakening delivers an ominous tone and some nice, dark chills, it’s not any sort of slam-bang ghost festival. As more of the school’s secrets are uncovered, we learn a bit more about Ms. Cathcart’s own disturbing past, and while the plot threads come together in a third act that dips into the weird end of the pool, The Awakening, as a whole, is a quietly satisfying and (again) very attractive little horror film.

Bonus points for some fine support work from Dominic West and Imelda Staunton, but Rebecca Hall’s performance is simply excellent. It’s not difficult to focus your eyeballs on this beautiful actress for 102 minutes, but she’s also multi-faceted in the best ways: cocky and brash, calm and commanding, vulnerable and, ultimately, pretty terrified. The Awakening would probably be worth watching just for Ms. Hall’s performance, but fortunately it’s just a concise little old-school British ghost story, and I say there’s always room for a few more of those.