'The Awakening' Blu-ray Review: Literate Ghost Story Shakes Up Tired Genre

'The Awakening' Blu-ray Review: Literate Ghost Story Shakes Up Tired Genre

Rebecca Hall’s character in The Awakening is a different kind of ghostbuster.

Hall’s Florence Cathcart excels at exposing hucksters trying to trick the grief-stricken into thinking they can connect with their late loved ones. Unfortunately, she’s lousy at examining the emotional skeletons in her own closet.

The Awakening, out this week on Blu-ray and DVD, is a ghost story with a difference. Possessing an intelligent script and a trio of fine performers, the film falls back on familiar haunted house tics–look, a creepy kid–but tells a compelling, literate tale all the same.

It’s stately and at times a bit stiff, but those starved for sophisticated shocks will come away grinning.

The British import’s first blast of originality arrives with its setting. It’s 1921, and while England’s war wounds remain raw the legacy of the 1918 influenza pandemic is proving even more devastating. Enter Florence, a ghost skeptic eager to smite those who prey on so many grieving souls.

Her unique skills lead her to a boy’s boarding school where a recent death is being blamed on some paranormal activities. She quickly whips out the tools of her trade–cameras and other gadgets meant to catch those perpetrating the fraud. What she finds within the school’s halls doesn’t meet her expectations.

Hall’s feisty character is joined by two very different personalities. Dominic West plays a World War I veteran who brings her to the school, and his limp and slight stammer aren’t the only reminders of his war days. And then we have Maud (Imelda Staunton), the school’s caretaker who welcomes Florence in to put her frightened children at ease.

Writer/director Nick Murphy, making his feature film debut, looks right cozy traipsing around the horror genre. His smart script not only establishes the unsettling tone but provides Hall with better dialogue than most horror film actresses get. Murphy gracefully introduces supporting players to keep us guessing while layering the tale with horrors that go beyond the genre staples.

The film’s third act reveal feels cheap initially, but Murphy rewards us with an ending that’s alternately satisfying and creepy. That’s a tall order in horror circles, and it makes one wonder what else the writer/director could do in a genre in dire need of new blood.

The Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes introduced by Murphy as well as a series of well thought out featurettes.

A Time for Ghosts offers broader context to the staggering sense of loss felt in England during the early 1920s. Murphy admits using the horror genre to revisit this period could be crass, but given the handsome production values and quality performances it’s hard to peg The Awakening as exploitative. In fact, the film is gorgeous in a very macabre kind of way.

Anatomy of a SCREAM finds the cast and crew sharing their personal views on ghosts. Naturally, everyone has their own opinion on the subject, but for Staunton the message is, “bring ‘em on.”

“I’d love to see a ghost. I think it would be marvelous,” Staunton says.

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