What is it about period ghost movies that seems to be such a sure bet? There aren’t that many, but each time they hit the big screen, they seem to strike a chord with viewers with their mix of classy nostalgia and Gothic fright.
From The Innocents to The Others, from The Woman in Black to lesser-known fare like St. Ange and The Devil’s Backbone, there’s something inherently creepy and absorbing about haunted house tales set in the past. The latest is The Awakening, which carries the mantle nicely, although perhaps more as a drama than as a fright flick.
The setup of a devout skeptic struggling with his or her beliefs in light of a supernatural encounter is a familiar one in genre films, from 1408 to The Rite to The Skeptic and the recent Red Lights, but Florence nonetheless makes for a fresh, compelling character. She’s a 21st century woman stuck in the early 20th century — educated, sexually assertive, practically an atheist — with a thirst for vigilante justice that masks the insecurities and guilt of the way she treated her dead boyfriend. Every time she disproves the existence of ghosts, she hammers another nail in his coffin, further cementing the fact that she’ll never communicate with him again.
As such, The Awakening’s strengths lie in its character-driven script, from writer Stephen Volk, whose impressive (and oft-overlooked) string of genre work includes Gothic, The Guardian, The Kiss, Octane (AKA Pulse) and Ghostwatch. The Awakening often plays more effectively as a drama than as a horror movie, in part because of its well-developed characters and emotional performances and in part because the scares are rather tepid. Despite the inherently goosebumpy surroundings, director Nick Murphy fails to milk the film’s fright potential. It has its moments (a dollhouse scene is particularly effective), but Murphy’s background as a documentarian comes through in the sterile and predictable attempts to elicit screams. The cheesy CGI ghost effects don’t help matters and feel out of place in what’s otherwise a down-to-earth period piece.
The twisty story demands — nay, requires — repeat viewing, with some elements seemingly left “up to interpretation” and others just downright confusing. Given a little thought, though, and some backtracking, things fall into place nicely, and the intelligence of the script shines through with a insightful message about living haunted lives.