I love a good ghost story. There’s something about it that speaks to the primeval, the child in me hiding beneath the covers, shaking with fear and excitement. They don’t have a terribly good press- they are, often not unfairly, labelled cheesy, cliche and overdone- but when they’re done right there are few things better.
And The Awakening is one of the best ghost films I’ve seen in a long, long while. It certainly blows Hammer’s disappointing The Woman in Black straight out of the water- though some might think the lack of Daniel Radcliffe on the cast list gives it an unfair advantage.
But first thing’s first: my declaration of interests. I know Mr Stephen Volk, the writer (well, over Facebook and the like, at least). I’m a fan of his previous work (Afterlife and the excellent Ghostwatch), and of his columns in horror fiction mag Black Static. I’ve also been wanting to see this film since its cinema release, but due to the ineptitude of Odeon Cinemas had to wait until the DVD release.
Now that’s done, onto the review. The Awakening follows ghost-hunter and -debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who comes to Rookwood boarding school on the request of teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West, of The Wire fame, looking like he was carved right out of a block of manliness). There she sets about debunking the “ghost” that has been blamed for the death of a student, just in time for the kiddies to go home for the holidays. Which is when the real creepy goings on start.
The “debunking” story is a fairly uncommon, but nonetheless established, model of horror story- and one I have a lot of time for. It invariably comes down to a character analysis of the debunker. In this case, Florence’s motivations and history take centre stage of the entire film, but they do so almost subtly- so you don’t even notice until it’s already happening.
I won’t give the plot ending away (because it is rather special), but as befits the story type you know it will go either one way or the other. Either the occurrences will be supernatural, or they won’t. In that way, it’s a lot like watching a coin spin on a table. It’ll either finish heads up or tails up, and you just have to wait and see. But The Awakening is a lot more entertaining to watch.
And that is largely down to the atmosphere. This is something that is integral to horror films, but which so many seem to get wrong. They either don’t spend enough time getting the audience into the right frame of mind, or they do and then ruin it (see the Paranormal Activity films). Here, though, there is a constant air of subtle creepiness, rendered all the more creepy for being uncertain of whether it is malevolent or harmless. Through the setting, the music and the acting, I found myself on the edge all the way through.
So there you have it. Very highly recommended, particularly if you like horror to reach you through more than simply loud noises and “jumpy” moments. Best served chilled, in a dark room, on a big screen, and with the volume up a little too high. And probably not alone.