October is Horror Movie month, where we let down our hair and celebrate all things macabre and scary! Not that we don’t during the rest of the year, but still… HORROR MOVIES! People who don’t like horror are encouraged to check back November 1st for less bloody and/or disturbing films. For everyone else, let’s put on our galoshes and WADE INTO THE MIRE!
Creepy, Creaky Old Houses Week is a gear-switch from Hell Week; in Hell Week we donned our raincoats and galoshes to wade into the Hellraiser movies– bloody, fleshy, hooky, painy, S&My wonders that they are. This week is all about subtle, understated horror, with very little blood, highbrow content, and plenty of atmospherics. So put on your Edwardian nightclothes and some hard-soled shoes– we’re creeping slowly up staircases while clutching unreliable lighting sources this week!
Today’s entry will contain SPOILERS.
Today we’re taking a look at The Awakening, a 2011 horror film that must have flitted into and out of theaters right under my nose. I first saw it while scrolling through Netflix, and when I saw the cast included Dominic West (The Wire fans know him as drunken tomcat Jimmy McNulty), Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran from Game of Thrones! He’s so little!) and Imelda Staunton, I hit ‘play.’
If you liked The Sixth Sense, The Others, or El Orfanato, then I have good news for you– The Awakening definitely breathes the same rarefied air as those aforementioned films. It is WONDERFULLY atmospheric, full of strong performances, complex characters, beautiful settings and haunting music. The historical setting was especially immersive, and informed the story in a natural way. Although there were plenty of cliches common to period haunted house movies, the plot held just enough surprises to keep the viewer guessing.
We open on a seance, complete with old blind seer, dead animals, cobwebs, table knocks, and the whole ‘does someone here wish to speak with someone named X?’ The creepy atmosphere stretches into some nice tension but is soon shut down by hoax-hunter Florence Cathcart, who proceeds to reveal all the chicanery and machinery that the fake psychic is using to bilk people out of their money.
Florence is a Modern Woman in 1921 England, and like most hoax-hunters, is driven to expose psychics because she has lost someone she wishes to see again. Everyone knows how Harry Houdini dedicated his life to exposing such hucksters after his mother passed away, as the idea of people preying on the grieving infuriated him. Florence is likewise a little too overzealous in her exposure, but she is also revealed to be a woman in pain; not only did her love pass away (she keeps a locket with his picture in it) but she’s an orphan. She’s written a very famous book about her experiences exposing the supernatural and how it has convinced her that such things do not exist.
Enter Dominic West as Robert Mallory, a teacher from an isolated boys’ school in the countryside. Mallory walks with a cane and a limp, and he doesn’t seem that impressed with her. He’s been sent to ask her to investigate a possible haunting at the school–a little boy died, and the children have been seeing things ever since. It’s a job she blows off until he reveals that most of the children are orphans. She changes her mind and agrees. EDIT: Upon reviewing the film last night I see that he actually strong-arms her into going after reminding her that she herself wrote about terrible it is for a child to grow up in a fearful environment, and that the children in the school are terrified. So their interaction is a little more terse than I made out – apologies!
Upon arriving, we’re introduced to Maud (Imelda Staunton) who has read Florence’s book and utterly worships her; Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), one of the little boys who lives at the school year-round; Judd, the weirdo groundskeeper, and some other staff and students. Naturally, weird things begin happening, and Florence’s disbelief in the paranormal is sorely tested.
Part murder-mystery, part ghost investigation, Florence delves into the house’s history as she sets up ghost-hunting equipment and observation points. I really liked the background on this, that Florence had designed many of the machines herself. She’s such a fully realized and well-written character, it’s hard to believe she wasn’t based on a real person from history.
The Awakening contains a deeply emotional story at its heart. I found the slow emergence of Florence’s unhappy and traumatic childhood to be gripping and incredibly sad, due to Rebecca Hall’s performance. Hempstead-Wright was compelling as Tom, a resident at the school. He has a great range and his understated looks of puzzled disappointment at Florence as he waits for her to recognize him from her past were spot-on. His character’s backstory was so sad and tragic, it was all but impossible not to feel for him, but Hempstead-Wright doesn’t do schmaltz and Tom is an infinitely like-able little boy. Likewise, West’s performance as a Great War veteran suffering from PTSD was stirring, especially as you realize he and Florence are both people literally and figuratively haunted by their own pasts.
I also really, really appreciated the ending being a happy one. There’s just too many movies about women with mental problems offing themselves these days! Still, there were a lot of the present crop of atmospheric horror cliches – folks haunted by the past and such, strange shapes flitting past in the background. I thought one of the most effective scares was the doll house moment… YOU know the one!
The Awakening is available on Instant Watch.