Words by Benjamin Pinsent
Warning, this article contains spoilers.
Horror is a subjective thing, people are afraid of many different things: spiders, the dark, heights are probably some of the most common fears. Similarly fears are very cultural, with different sorts of folklore and rules applied to the plethora stories. That being said it can be really hard to make a consistently scary film that scares the majority of people over a feature length running time.
In the last few years horror has taken a steep downhill turn with some lack lustre ghost stories stolen from much better Japanese counter parts and a lot of American gore-fests that aren’t so much scary as sickening. The Awakening proves that there are still some smart and more importantly scary horror movies coming from somewhere.
A very British affair, the film is set in a boy’s boarding school after the First World War. The death of a pupil after claiming to have seen a ghost leads paranormal de-bunker Florence Cathcart to investigate, exposing more than just a haunting but the perception of ghosts as a whole.
Like this years The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliff this film is very good at creating an atmosphere but terrible at paying it off well. The camera lingers over the empty sets just a little too long and after a while one expects something to happen. There are some formulaic scares, something moves between the door frame, blurred out furniture in the background is actually something else. These get used early and often, but they never seem to loose their power.
Music is always a big part of the atmosphere of a horror. And this score moves around as much as the ghost does, there are swells when there should be, quiet bits when there should be. It adds a layer of magic that pulls the audience along to what would have other wise been people being startled by blurs and themselves.
That being said, the performances by the three main actors, Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton are all solid. From West’s war scared history master, Robert Malory to Hall’s Cathcart; each part is well played from British actors that really need more mainstream work. They all give weight and believability to roles that are either too under developed or stuffed full of sub plot.
I think this is the main problem of the film. The story and sub plots vary in success from the riveting to the unimportant. There are two 40 minute sections of the film where the first mystery is solved and the school breaks for half term and the real scares begin. This becomes a problem as small details from character history or things that where hinted at earlier in the film come back like the writers just remembered they had a creepy grounds keeper and wanted to do something with him.
Another thing that lets the film down is the ending. The reason for the haunting is really sentimental and there are some mental gymnastics that have to be performed to try and make the logic of the film work, though I will give praise for a really smart idea that rethinks the meaning behind a ghost.
Now to properly describe what this is some spoilers may be unveiled if you want to check out this film which I highly recommend you do, skip the rest of this article and watch it. The film starts with a sort of logical statement about the effects of the war on British society; this is a hint at the thesis of the film. People carry round their own ghosts, regrets and guilt that they are haunted by similar to the spirits of the dead. This is revealed at the end of the film as one of the characters reveals that West can’t see what a small boy that the other residents see, and that he has spirits of his. With this is mind the film is a story about letting go of ones past, it seems to suggest that one cannot move into the future with out first confronting the past and shows the destruction that is caused by holding onto the past.