All too often, the horror genre is at the less respectable end of the critical spectrum, with cheap, gory exploitation fare designed to bring in hordes of teenagers on opening weekend, and not do much beyond that. But there have been exceptions over the years, in the form of a classier kind of scare fest, a tradition that goes back to films like "The Innocents," and that is currently kept alive by international filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Amenabar and Juan Antonio Bayona.
And British chiller "The Awakening," while certainly commercial, is a more old-fashioned kind of ghost story, firmly of a piece with recent genre hits like "The Others" and "The Orphanage." With backing from BBC Films, and a strong cast led by Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton, it certainly seems to be on the classier side of the horror movie spectrum, and our hopes were high that it might provide a little change of pace. And so it did. The film, the debut from TV director Nick Murphy, has more than its share of flaws, but it also gets its balance of tones right, proving spooky, involving and occasionally resonant, while still managing to bring something new to a well-worn tale, and providing a terrific lead part for one of the most promising actresses of her generation.
In a Britain still deeply wounded from the effects of the First World War, Florence Cathcart (Hall) is an author who spends much of her time exposing would-be mediums and spiritualists in a nation where so many men have become ghosts, even if they're still alive. After taking down one such group of charlatans, she's approached by Robert Mallory (West), a history teacher at Rockwood, a boys' boarding school in the North of England, seeking her help. A boy in his care recently died, seemingly frightened to death by a ghost at the school, and the students are living in fear of the spirit. Florence is persuaded to join him, and swiftly finds a rational explanation, but left alone over the holidays with only Robert, the school's matron (Staunton) and Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, the crippled Bran Stark from "Game of Thrones"), a boy whose parents are living in India, she discovers that she may have been too quick to dismiss the supernatural.
Make no mistake, "The Awakening" is not particularly original. The spirit of "The Innocents," "The Uninvited," "The Changeling," and the recent spate of creepy-child flicks from "The Devil's Backbone" to "Dark Water," all hang heavy in its DNA, the tropes of the genre seemingly being ticked off as it goes on: eerie children, spooky old house, wise older woman, creepy groundsman. It's also silly in spots, particularly as it comes to a close, piling twist upon twist in its climax, edging into campiness for the first time. But for the most part, it really works, maintaining an eerie tone (beautifully shot by "A Single Man" DoP Eduard Grau, who does the best work in the field this year that stands no chance of any awards recognition), with a smattering of scares that rarely feel gratuitous. It's got the same kind of feeling as a really well-done fairground ghost-train, which we can't help but feel is the effect that a film like this should have.
And despite the well-worn subject matter and setting, it feels fresh. Part of this is the zip that Murphy's direction gives it — the handheld camerawork stops it feeling too staid — the cutting is pacy, and the script, by Murphy and Stephen Volk (the latter of whom also penned William Friedkin's killer tree movie "The Guardian") is playful and witty when it needs to be.
But it's mostly down to Ms. Hall. Aside from the Woody surrogate in "Vicky Christina Barcelona," the actress hasn't had the chance to lead many movies yet, but she absolutely makes a case for it to happen more in the future. It's not exactly rare for a female character to be the lead of a horror film, but it's rare to have a character as interesting as Florence Cathcart at the center. A sort of post-suffragette feminist, clad in a trouser suit, she's fearless and fiercely intelligent, but deeply vulnerable too; stricken by an almost tangible grief for a lost love (something admirably never over-explained), she's erected a series of walls around her that come swiftly crumbling down when she arrives at Rockwood.
It's a gift of a character, and Hall runs with it, infusing Florence with a dry wit and a starved sexuality that make her a very different kind of heroine for a film like this. We're not ones to encourage the franchising of films, necessarily, but we wouldn't be particularly distressed to hear of future Florence Cathcart adventures down the line. The rest of the cast have more familiar parts, but do good work with them. Hempstead-Wright is as impressive as he is in "Game of Thrones," West is genuinely affecting as a shell-shocked soldier with ghosts of his own, and Staunton, true to form, is both sour and maternal as the matron, Florence's biggest fan.
The film's taut running time comes with consequences however; there's a few fairly gaping plot holes, and it feels like there's material left on the cutting room floor that might have tied things up a little neater. Conversely, there's also an extraneous subplot involving the groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle, from "Red Riding") that never really goes anywhere, and that conclusion does tip over the edge into campiness, somewhat. But the film's flaws are outweighed by its atmospheric pleasures, pleasures that turn out to be disarmingly moving at the same time. [B]
This is an edited reprint of our review from the London Film Festival in 2011.