The Awakening (15)
Florence Cathcart, the sceptic, detective and ‘20s ghostbuster at the heart of The Awakening is the kind of spunky heroine Hollywood drools over.
Our Stateside pals would garb her in leather, add a utility belt crammed with gadgets and gizmos, and throw in some action-packed sequences that involve speeding around in a period car, crashing through windows, or both. Probably at the same time.
Thankfully The Awakening is from the pen of Stephen Volk, a master ghost story teller. He dispenses with all that kind of nonsense and opts instead to tell one of the creepiest, unsettling and downright frightening horror stories of the last 20 years.
Cathcart (Rebecca Hall in her first lead role, and not before time) is a paranormal investigator who debunks the charlatans that prey on grieving wives and parents in the years immediately after the Great War.
She expects to uncover more frauds when she is invited to a posh private school where a boy has allegedly been frightened to death by a ghost. She treats it as just another potential scam until teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) puts her right: “These boys are not worried about bumps in the night. They are frightened to death.”
Thus begins an experience that transforms Florence’s life and all she knows. She struggles with her belief (or lack of it) and begins to see more – much more – in the dark, deserted classrooms and endless corridors of the school.
The Awakening is a film about damaged people in a damaged world trying to right itself after the cataclysm of war. It is a period triumph, wholly plausible and consistently scary, taking its lead from the tale of titans such as Poe, Bierce and James.
Volk (best known for Ghostwatch) keeps his tale rooted in truth; Houdini was famous for exposing fakes. Here the mood appears much more disquieting due to Florence’s own secrets and her growing relationship with West’s shell-shocked former soldier, a man with his own demons.
Aficionados of the genre will see parallels with The Others, The Sixth Sense, The Orphanage and Hammer’s Fear in the Night. But they are only parallels; The Awakening occupies its own rightful place in that arena.
This delectable chiller from director Nick Murphy is another indication that British horror is in rude health and undergoing something of a renaissance. And it’s scary. Rarely has sound – squeaks, creaks, footsteps – been used so effectively.
Star rating: ****