Next to slasher flicks, ghost stories might be the most well-worn of their kind in the horror genre. But as long as filmmakers know how to accumulate creeps and handle their tale with a deft hand, the subgenre isn’t about to grow obsolete. With “The Awakening,” writer-director Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk go with a less-is-more approach in the classical vein of most Victorian haunted-house pictures, as if it were cut from the same cloth as “The Haunting” and “The Changeling,” as well as “The Others” and “The Orphanage.” (Notice the titles all start with the same definite article.) By no means does the film transcend ghost stories, however, the British cast, stately set decoration, and atmospherics appreciably give it a measure of class and watchability. Other than that, the horror elements actually get in the way of what is really a period drama about grief, loss, and buried memories.
1921, London. Plagued by the death of her lover, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is an author of the supernatural who’s devoted her life to debunking ghostly sightings with concrete evidence. She can see right through a charlatan at a faux sÃ©ance. After a young pupil’s death three weeks earlier at a boys boarding school, Florence is invited by the headmaster, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), to come back with him and investigate the reported sightings of the boy’s ghost. Initially, she is certain that there are no supernatural goings-on, just pranks by some of the boys, but as her stay at the school goes on, signs prove otherwise.
Interestingly set after WWI and the influenza pandemic, “The Awakening” unfolds as a quietly engaging slow-burn for its first two-thirds. It doesn’t hurt that Hall, as Miss Cathcart, carries the story with an intelligence and conviction, as well as an aching vulnerability and desire, and gives it some emotional impact. Imelda Staunton, as no-nonsense school matron Maud, and young newcomer Isaac Hempstead-Wright, as a lonely student who develops a friendship with Florence, also add interest. A couple peek-a-boo jolts startle (especially one with a pillow and another in the forest); Daniel Pemberton’s effectively dread-induced score blends overwhelming musical swells, child whisperings, and chantings; and there’s the shiver-inducing use of a dollhouse that turns out to be a chilling replica of the school and everyone in it, including Florence. But when revelations start to unravel and Florence’s repressed memories are brought to the surface, Murphy and Volk ditch their low-key sensibilities. The plotting grows clumsy, with a needless red herring and a rather traditional twist explained through an exposition dump.
Overall, when you get right down to it, “The Awakening” smacks of so much familiarity, eventually plodding along to a conclusion that makes its earlier spooky moments appear only as empty tricks. It’s at once nicely old-fashioned and handsomely well-made, but doesn’t really make much of a haunting impression in the long run.
107 min., rated R.
Grade: C +