The Awakening is a 2011 British psychological horror film. Directed by Nick Murphy and starring Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Dominic West (The Wire) and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake). The movie is set in a post-war 1921 Britain, and follows the ghostly happenings at an all boys boarding school.
Florence Cathcart (Hall) is an author and a cynical paranormal investigator, who travels the country exposing hoaxes and con artists. She is approached by Robert Mallory (West), a teacher sent from an all boys boarding school to recruit Cathcart. There have been recent sightings of a ghostly boy at the school which have led to a suspicious death. This prompts Cathcart to visit the school to expose any pranks, finding out who is responsible for the death. However, the more Cathcart investigates, the more she is forced to re-assess her scepticism as she too begins to see the ghost of a previous student. The film then takes a shocking turn of events as major secrets are revealed about the school, Cathcart and the boy, in a twist that turns the film on it’s ear.
The Awakening is an atmospheric, chilling period horror film, but there is an elephant in the room here. The Woman in Black has been one of the most successful British horror films in recent memory (period or otherwise), and it’s unfortunate timing that this film was released mere months before what will surely be a revival in period horror. However, putting that aside, The Awakening is a clever and engaging film, the thinking man’s horror film if you will. Though the film does get off to a slow start, it doesn’t take long for the scares to start once the investigation begins. Plot-wise the film struck me as a cross between The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Paranormal Activity (2007), in that there is a ghostly child at a boys boarding school and also much scepticism and paranormal monitering going on. The paranormal equipment (circa 1921) set up by Cathcart is an element I’d liked to have seen more of, as she proudly displays all manner of weather vanes, magnetic counters and state of the art photographic equipment. This equipment is probably not absolutely historically accurate, but it does provide an extra point of interest in the character as she attempts to expose the ghostly hoax.
This is also a visually impressive film with some really unique camera shots and a particularly good use of reflection. One of the most stunning sequences occurs when Cathcart is peering into a mysterious dollhouse replica of the school, featuring tiny dioramas of scenes that have already occured in the film. This is complete with minature furniture, characters and is a sort of micro set design that shows a real effort by the props department and created a completely unique sequence. Accompanying the impressive visuals is a traditional but effective score. The Hitchcockian staccato strings attack your senses during the jump scares, and the slow groaning strings build tension throughout. This type of score works so well when applied to a period horror piece as opposed to any modern horror film. The only real drawback of the film is that there’s very little intrigue in the plot and it’s resolution until the final act when the twist is revealed. Up until this point it plods along as a fairly cliched piece with average supporting performances, so ultimately, it is a film of two halves disparate in quality.
I certainly predict a new wave of period horror is on the way in the wake of Woman in Black, and the Awakening would certainly make a fine companion piece. Though not nearly as well directed or scripted as that film, what it lacks in those areas it makes up for with it’s neat twist that will keep you thinking after the credits roll. I also predict there will be some really poor period horror on the way, so before that wave starts to break, The Awakening is well worth a watch. 4 Stars ****