Nick Murphy’s effective supernatural mystery stars rising star Rebecca Hall as a sceptic who has to confront her own demons when a ghost begins haunting a boarding school.
Disclaimer: The Awakening co-writer Stephen Volk has been in contact since this review was published. He believes, in its discussion of the plot, that too much is revealed. I will therefore request that if you haven’t seen the film yet please scroll down to the bottom of the page to see my rating out of five. Come back and read the review once you’ve enjoyed the film.
British television director Nick Murphy, who has worked on notable series such as Primeval, makes the move to feature-length film with supernatural mystery The Awakening. Starring rising starlet Rebecca Hall, the British actress plays a sceptic who spends her time debunking hauntings and supernatural occurrences. She is summoned to a boarding school shortly after World War 1 to discover the truth behind a ghost boy seen haunting the corridors and frightening the children.
The Awakening, at first glance, doesn’t distinguish itself from the sorts of haunted house films we’ve come accustomed to since William Castle introduced us to The House On Haunted Hill in 1959. Similar in style to Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, you’ll quickly realise where director Nick Murphy is coming from, and perhaps guess the twist along the way (although thankfully they do differ). Like The Others, the grandiose house with its endless passageways and numerous rooms is as central as any of the characters. Yet, the fact remains, originality aside, the foreboding presence of an imposing building set in remote seclusion is just as effective in the context of the horror genre as it is familiar.
“The Awakening might not be unique but it celebrates the great traditions of haunted house films by following convention with effective scares, a sense of style and strong performances.”
Thankfully, The Awakening chooses its locations well. The building that houses the boarding school supposedly haunted by a departed boy is suitably overwhelming, its architecture the perfect gothic setting for the ensuing bumps in the night. Perhaps the surrounding woods sees the director lean a little too far towards cliché but he makes no such mistakes in casting. Rebecca Hall’s rising star is the perfect choice for sceptic Florence Cathcart. She captures the defiance of someone battling to prove herself despite an obvious yet subtle glimmer of something bubbling beneath the surface. Not only is the mystery of the ghost boy confidently executed, but Cathcart’s muddy past appears in Hall’s nervous outbreaks and apprehensive suspicion of the motives of those around her. Likewise, the brilliant Imelda Staunton is a credit to the film as the school’s matron.
Despite lacking experience of feature-filmmaking, director Nick Murphy is at home with the material. Exhibiting a confident grasp of pacing, the mystery unfolds with a sense of increasing terror. He also displays some flashes of stylistic elegance, while his well-timed shock tactics are executed with a precise understanding of his audience. Memorable scenes include a frantic Florence looking through a doll house which has been designed as a replica of the boarding school. Within it, toy figures, one dressed to resemble her, are placed in various rooms depicting things that had happened since she arrived. As she eventually reaches the attic room of the replica house – the room she is actually in – she sees her plastic figure looking into the toy house as someone watches over her from behind. Other brilliantly effective scenes include a sequence in the woods where Florence is attacked by the groundskeeper (which features a brilliant jump-of-your-seat moment!) and a scene where Florence develops some photographs and finds something unexpected on one of them.
The Awakening might not be unique but it celebrates the great traditions of haunted house films by following convention with effective scares, a sense of style and strong performances. Essentially, it does the right things well. Murphy is a confident director who has a tight grasp of setting his audience up for a good jump, while he envelops us in the story through cold, grey-sky photography, precision pacing, and fitting use of the location. He coaxes excellent performances from a strong cast and has a great double-edged twist that lies in wait.
Directed by: Nick Murphy
Written by: Stephen Volk, Nick Murphy
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton
Released: 2011 / Genre: Thriller/Horror / Country: UK / IMDB