Editor’s note: Wolfman Josh is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and Movie Stream Cast. He is also a television producer and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. You can follow Josh on Twitter: @IcarusArts This review contains some carefully approached spoilers.
The Awakening starts out with one of the coolest séance scenes I’ve ever seen on film and it gets even cooler when, in somewhat Scooby Doo fashion (and I say that as a compliment), the movie’s heroin unmasks the supposed spiritualists to reveal them as charlatans and the séance as an elaborate fiction, concocted to relieve the desperate and grieving of their money.
The film stars Rebecca Hall (The Gift, The Town) as Florence Cathart, an author, a skeptic and a debunker of the paranormal. We get an extremely economic and effective introduction to Florence who, despite being a strong woman ahead of her time, is dealing with her own personal pain and tragedy. We learn that she is good at what she does and is both admired and reviled for it. And we learn all of this in a matter of minutes through the opening séance and the following scene at her home when Robert Mallory, played by Dominic West (McNulty from The Wire), shows up at her door asking for help with his ghost problem. It is clear from the start that The Awakening is strong technical filmmaking, that maintains an organic feel, and it has my undivided attention.
What is not clear from either the film’s poster, or the brief introduction to the film that I found on Netflix, is that this is a period piece set in the 1920s. I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback and had to readjust my expectations because I had been expecting something more akin to Final Prayer (2014), aka The Borderlands, or even The Reaping (2007) and I just wasn’t sure I was in the mood for the film I found myself in. Luckily, these concerns quickly dissipated like so much ghostly haze.
Robert is a man on a mission, not easily put off when Florence tells him that she is not interested in taking on his case. Robert produces a series of school photos in which a ghostly apparition seems to make an appearance and Florence quickly explains it away as photographic trickery. Clearly a woman who is resolute in decision making, Robert ultimately convinces Florence with an emotional appeal that targets her own difficult past and relates them to the terrors that the children at the school are experiencing.
I won’t go too much more into the plot other than to say that the film transitions from an extremely engaging procedural that explores early attempts at ghost-busting to a tense and atmospheric film that, for me, had a really satisfying emotional impact.
The Awakening is listed on IMDb as a horror film. That, I’m not so sure about. It’s certainly a ghost film and it has a few very intense scenes and an overall spooky vibe. There is great suspense and a few scares. For our audience, it may play like more of a drama, but I want to stress above all that The Awakening is a quality film and an incredible debut fictional feature for writer/director Nick Murphy who had done a lot of documentary and television work prior to this. The film is well written, beautifully shot and all of the performances are strong, including those from children. After The Awakening, I was immediately interested in seeking our Murphy’s follow-up film, the crime/drama/thriller Blood (2013).
This never reaches the terrifying heights of The Babadook (2014) The Orphanage (2007) or The Conjuring (2013), three superficially similar films that I had hoped this would live up to. The two easiest comparisons I can give you for this movie are The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001) and I’d place it right between them in terms of quality and tone, but The Awakening sets itself apart by giving us a paranormal investigation in post-war England.
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