31 Days of Halloween — Day 17: The Awakening (2012) — by Wolfman Josh

HMP AwakeningEditor’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.

—Wolfman Josh


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14 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 17: The Awakening (2012) — by Wolfman Josh

  1. Come on, Josh this is definitely horror. It has almost the exact vibe of an M.R. James or Algernon Blackwood story transcribed to celluloid.

    That said, I don’t think I had as much of a good time with this film as you did. I loved the pacing/setting/atmosphere but the twist really ruined the whole thing for me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that when they were writing the last act they realised they needed some big shocking revelation and then tried to weave some contrived back-story in that just didn’t sit right with me. It felt very forced. It has been a good few years since I saw it though.

    • Christian, dying to see Crimson Peak. Especially after watching this. Also going to watch Lost River this week.

      MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE AWAKENING

      ON HORROR: One could call this horror and I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but I never had much of a scare. It was emotionally violent with the attempted rape and the cutting and the killing of the boy, but those all felt like something that could happen in Atonement. This never got to the sheer terror of something like The Babadook or The Orphanage, which were the two films I was thinking of as it went along and hoped it would reach the level of. So, I wanted people to know that if they don’t consider something like The Sixth Sense horror, they wouldn’t think of this as horror either. David, you DO consider The Sixth Sense to be horror, so your take makes sense with the sliding scale of my horror rubric.

      ON QUALITY: David, this is a tremendous first film. It is simple but ridiculously well done. Christian, I’d agree with you that my surprise at how solid it was had a lot to do with how much I liked it. I bit on the premise. I had never heard of this movie when I happened upon it on Netflix and hadn’t recognized Hall on the poster. So many pleasant surprises.

      • POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE AWAKENING:

        I didn’t realise this was a first film and in that regard it’s very impressive. As far as I remember the filmmaking was great. It was just the writing that bothered me. I feel like this kind of twist needs to be earned throughout the film in a way that allows the audience to potentially figure it out before the actual revelation. Here it was just a case of throwing in a bunch of totally left-field connections to a characters past that had little bearing on the early parts of the film. Movies like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Orphanage” have their twists cleverly interwoven into the overall narrative which lends them a greater sense of weight and believability, furthermore they’re intrinsic to the entire thrust of the characters. This twist just felt like it was simply filling a space in a screenplay; a placeholder twist that could have been replaced by any number of other clichéd revelations.

        Maybe I’m being too harsh though. As I say it’s a while since I actually saw this film so I’m just going on my recollection and I think I’ve mellowed in my critical approach since then.

        • And I think part of the reason it bothered me so much was because I found the rest of the film pretty darn effective, so it frustrated me that that one element wasn’t handled better.

          • I mean, the movies you’re comparing it to are two of the greatest films ever made, so maybe it’s not fair. But, the “twist” took me off guard and didn’t feel forced to me at all. It wasn’t set up as a great mystery, but it also didn’t feel like a mystery to me and it just felt like this organic piece of character backstory that I found touching. I guess it just feels like a small shift to me rather than an M Night level twist.

  2. I had really low expectations when I saw this because I got it confused with another movie that got terrible reviews (can’t remember what it was though). Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought the acting really carried it, particularly by Hall. I like your comparison of The Others. I would say that is right about where it is for me as well.
    On another note, I saw Crimson Peak today. It is pretty good but as a bit of a fanatical Del Toro fan I was also a little disappointed. Tone wise it is more along the lines of his Spanish language films (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone) but it just lacked the emotional resonance that those others had. I figured out what was going on quite early on but that didn’t really bother me. Wasn’t crazy about the CG ghosts. Having said that it is still well done and have few real complaints. I took my mother (who had never seen a Del Toro film) and she really liked it so perhaps it is an expectations game.

      • I absolutely love Cronos, Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth so perhaps I am being a little hard on Crimson Peak because I didn’t like it as much as those three. If I had no idea who did the film when I saw it I might be raving about how amazing it is. It actually is a really good companion piece for The Awakening. A similar tone and plot (kind of). Also just about the same level of “horror”. One thing I really liked was that it was a pretty good length and at no time did I look at my watch. It is well paced and doesn’t waste much time. There is one thing about a dog in the movie that I would like to get people’s opinions on once you all have seen it but won’t say anything because possible spoiler (not really an important one but still).

  3. Day 17 – Tales from the Crypt

    (Okay, not a movie, but it was my birthday, so I’m allowed to cheat)

    Collection Completed
    Season: 1/Episode: 6
    Director: Mary Lambert

    Jonas has spent the last forty-seven years of his life working at a company that has now forced him into retirement on his sixty-five birthday. The last thing Jonas wants to do is slow down and let life pass him by. As the days since his retirement passes, Jonas finds it more and more difficult to adjust to this new life as he struggles to find things to do in the day, the neighbor won’t stop bugging him, and he truly realizes just how obsessed his wife is with animals. Is retirement enough to drive Jonas insane or will he have far more deadly concerns to worry himself about?

    Collection Completed happens to be the final episode of the first season of Tales from the Crypt. For my money, it also happens to be one of the best of the entire series. It’s an episode that feels different from the average episode due to it’s lighthearted look at retirement and at times being too realistic for comfort. On one hand, the episode is pretty depressing due to Jonas being forced out of a job he loved and the realization of working hard for forty-seven years has had some negative effects on his wife as well. He’s finally realizing that she’s a bit loony, but it’s just her way of coping with a life of being mostly by herself due to a hard working husband and never having kids. There’s actually a good life lesson to be found in this episode. Don’t let time slip away with those you’re supposed to be close with. Just because you’re married to someone or live in the same house doesn’t mean you’re close. For Jonas, it was a real wake up call with how little he actually knew his wife while finding out that all of their neighbors knew about her ways.

    Most of the comedy came from M. Emmet Walsh as Jonas. The lighthearted comedy surrounds Jonas’ difficulty in adjusting to his new life, syncing his new schedule up with his wife’s previous schedule, and his war against his wife’s pets. Walsh is someone who was born to play a grouch and he’s completely believable as the guy who is losing his mind as the animals rule the house. It’s less believable, but his wife treating Jonas like she would a pet, but it’s some of the better source of laughs. Late in the episode, the story takes a dark turn with some serious dark humor. Animal lovers may not be too fond of these twists, but there is something oddly hilarious with what Jonas does to finally deal with all of these animals while also finding purpose in his retirement life.

    If you’re someone who prefers more serious horror, Collection Completed may not be a great episode of Tales from the Crypt for you. That being said, if you like some sick humor, it’s really memorable and along with And All Through the House, are the highlights of that first short season.

    Rating: 9.5, one of the more fun episodes you can watch.

    Mute Witness to Murder
    Season: 2/Episode: 15
    Director: Jim Simpson

    As their anniversary party is wrapping up, Suzy is hanging out on her balcony, waiting for the love of her life to reveal her present. It’s while waiting on that balcony that she happens to see inside of an apartment building where another married couple is not having as swell of a day. The loud argument turns to murder as the husband snaps and kills his wife to silence her once and all. The shock of witnessing a murder has traumatized Suzy into losing her voice. As her husband returns and realizes that something is terribly wrong with his wife, he quickly leaves their apartment to seek help from a neighbor that happens to be a doctor. As luck will have it, the doctor that the husband brings into their apartment to help Suzy just happens to be the same man who Suzy witnessed killing his wife. With the doctor putting the pieces together and realizing why Suzy has lost her voice, will Suzy manage to get her voice back in time to tell her husband the truth or will the doctor manage to silence Suzy forever?

    While Collection Completed was grounded in some uncomfortable reality, Mute Witness to Murder lives on the other end of the spectrum. If there’s one main issue with the episode, it’s that it’s hard to suspend your disbelieve and just go along with the ride. The doctor locks Suzy up in a mental asylum, yet the husband is supposed to go along with it. It’s hard to buy that the husband would think anything that was happening was normal. If someone can’t talk, you get a damn pen and paper, not throw on a straight jacket and throw the poor woman in a padded cell. Granted, most episodes of Tales from the Crypt are hard to believe, but most of them are rooted in some believability. They take a simple story and just embellish on the events.

    The episode is entirely serious though. There is some good horror in terms of the hopelessness that one would feel if put in the shoes of Suzy. If you’re Suzy, what are you supposed to do once you’re thrown into the padded cell? You can’t talk, no one is bringing you any paper, your husband is useless, and the man you most fear is calling all of the shots. You’re screwed. There’s also a bit of a horror story going on with the doctor that is reminiscent of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. The doctor’s fate doesn’t come as a surprise as soon as we learn an important fact about him, but it still makes for an interesting character trait. The doctor comes off as a more cliche villain, but I’m fine with that. Overall, it’s a bit of a weak episode, but I did love the mute aspect of the episode. The episode either needed to inject a little more realism into it or embrace it’s wacky plot.

    Rating: 6. Eh, check it out if you’re a big fan of the series.

  4. Day 17: All Hallows’ Eve
    HMP reviewed this at one point. I think I agree with what they said. The acting is not great but the clown is great and there are some good scares. I love horror movies with babysitters.

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