Director: Nick Murphy
Writers: Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk
Cast: Alfie Field, Rebecca Hall, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Sidney Johnston, Joseph Mawle, John Shrapnel, Imelda Staunton, and Dominic West
I have found that people who say they don’t like scary movies often mean they don’t like slashers. Born of the exploitation fad in the seventies and since refined for mass consumption, the subgenre has dominated horror cinema for the past forty years, but there exist other ways to commit our fears to the screen. Long before Michael Myers donned his albino William Shatner mask, the gothic tradition delighted audiences with its shadowy imagery and repressed longings. In fact, it still does today as evidenced by films like Nick Murphy’s The Awakening.
I find it intriguing that contemporary gothic fiction is so often set in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Awakening opens with a clever quote that explains this phenomenon and sets the stage for a sinister boarding school where the faculty seems in perpetual mourning. World War I has just ended, you see, and the survivors remain haunted by its horrors. When a scientific expert is brought in to investigate claims of a paranormal murder, we sense it isn’t the first time the children see grownups surrender to their ghosts.
Even our intrepid protagonist serves as testament to this. Though she specialises in debunking alleged evidence of the afterlife, Florence longs to be proven wrong in her atheistic stance, if only to escape regret. Among the first women to seek a higher education, she makes a perfect underdog: patronised by her male peers and resented by the rest of England. We root for the stubborn heroine because her judgement remains sound in the face of such adversity. We fall in love with her because she’s played by Rebecca Hall, who understands that strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive where human nature is concerned.
Take, for example, Florence’s quiet attraction to Robert (Dominic West), her reluctant liaison at the school. The woman has no trouble challenging his reasoning in public, but she only feels safe revealing her burgeoning feelings when there’s a literal wall between them. Also consider her restrained warmth toward the housekeeper, Maud (Imelda Staunton), who admires her writings less for their intellectual discourse than the intimacy of navigating her thoughts. Really, our heroine bares her soul to just one person: Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), an orphaned student to whom she refuses to talk down, answering every question with brutal honesty.
Florence’s fierce independence is also manifested in the way she conducts her investigation, exploring dark hallways on her own and calmly gathering evidence even as faceless ghouls breathe down her neck. The scares in The Awakening prove remarkably effective because they rely on character and atmosphere instead of “gotcha” moments: no gore or cannon fodder cast members; no pulse-pounding score or loud musical sting; just good old-fashioned creepiness in the time-honoured gothic tradition. I love the stuff with the dollhouse.
As is often the case in movies of the sort, the whole thing ends up tying back to the protagonist’s personal demons. The climactic revelation is by no means predictable, but it won’t have you spoiling it for everyone passing by your office water-cooler either. I want to stress, though, that The Awakening does not feature a twist ending (just a deliberately ambiguous one). The big reveal serves instead to setup a final tragedy, one that relates to the story’s broader message about grief and guilt.
Every character is scarred by regret. Some, like Robert, bear the wound in quiet suffering. Others, like groundskeeper Edward (Joseph Mawle), have allowed themselves to grow bitter. Florence ultimately draws power from her painful memories, grasping a crucial distinction between mourning and wallowing: “It is one thing to remember those you love, another to be haunted by them.” You see, unlike most horror flicks today, by which I mean mainstream slashers, The Awakening addresses thoughtful adults, not pubescent gore hounds. For this reason alone, gothic fiction must be kept alive, lest we want to carry its ghost.