Ghost stories are not exactly new to cinema, or in fact new to stories in general. The idea of telling stories about deceased ancestors seems to go hand in hand with the very tradition of story-telling.
Perhaps I should not be surprised that it is to this sub-genre so many of my favourite horror films of the last ten years have come from. The Orphanage, The Others and The Ring all developing the kind of unsettling atmosphere only the best horror movies manage to reproduce.
The secret to all these films is allowing the scares to come from the unseen rather than the seen (“torture porn” movies take note). Perhaps it is a little like the teacher who to get control of an unruly class, does not shout manically, but rather stands quietly, forcing the pupils to pay attention to their stern, unblinking manner; the unheard, rather than the heard proving the most effective in this instance.
The Awakening follows a lot of these rules. In it, we follow Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), the infamous ghost hunter who has no belief in anything supernatural. The opening scene of the film sees Cathcart uncovering the tricks of a conman claiming he can speak to the dead. It finishes with one of the woman whose been conned attacking Cathcart, such is this woman’s desperation to be tricked into believing she can have contact with her dead son.
This examination of grief is something that the film is primarily concerned with as we are asked to question whether a belief in ghosts is a necessary part of the mourning process or a distraction that prevents us from moving on?
After this introduction into Cathcart’s world, a stranger called Mallory (Dominic West) appears at her door. He is a teacher at a boarding school, and asks her to investigate what could possibly have literally scared one of his pupils to death.
The setting for the piece is shortly after the First World War, “never has there been a better time for ghosts,” Cathcart remarks in her book on ghost hunting. All the characters in the film, both adults and children, remain haunted by the loss of loved ones. For Cathcart it is the death of her lover; for Mallory, survivor’s guilt.
The beginning of the film sees Cathcart meticulously try and find out which of the pupils, or indeed the teachers, is responsible for what she believes to be a prank gone wrong. However, as she stays longer in the school she starts seeing things that could not possibly be there, and becoming more and more paranoid about her safety.
The first two thirds of the film remain this moody, atmospheric and mysterious. However, arguably the third act does a poor job of holding things together, with an arguably unnecessary twist distracting from all the genuine depth and troubles of the film’s protagonists.
Ultimately it is the strong themes of memory, guilt and longing that allow the film to rise above the finale’s slightly weak plotting. Like The Orphanage, it is a film which is probably just as strong on second viewing, since the work it puts into its characters cannot distract us from its attempts to ‘wow’ the audience with twists we’ve seen too many times before.