Horror By Numbers
Published on August 14th, 2012 | by Allie Conti0
“The Awakening” opens on Friday, August 17.
Running time: 107 minutes; Rated R.
It’s almost impossible for a film set at a provincial boarding school to not be creepy, but Nick Murphy’s “The Awakening” proves that “creepy” and “frightening” are not co-dependent terms. His failed attempt at art house horror proves that the unknown drives cinematic suspense, and that nothing works counter to the genre’s goals more than too much explication of “why” and “how.”
The film begins by establishing the ability of protagonist Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) to expose criminal tricksters who prey on the superstitious. Shortly after this expository scene, Robert Mallory (Dominic West) proposes that Cathcart come to investigate a series of ghost sightings at the all-boys boarding school where Mallory teaches and where one pupil recently died. Cathcart’s credentials are further established when it is revealed that she wrote a book (which sits next to the Bible in the homes of many people in this fictional universe, which seems odd given that the subject matter is basically occult related), as is her overall skepticism (“Some of these boys believe in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny,” she tells Mallory. “Some of them probably believe in God.”) Our protagonist is cemented as an anachronism: a headstrong, Cambridge-educated, atheist woman who can write a ghost book with as much heft as the Bible.
When Cathcart arrives at the school, she meets an obsequious maid (Imelda Staunton), a lonely orphan named Tom, and a disturbed taskmaster. As is to be expected, she and Mallory develop a mutual attraction. Experiments are performed with a huddled mass of frightened schoolboys at the epicenter until they are arbitrarily sent home on vacation. One wonders why this vacation didn’t begin right after one of the boys died or at least before they invited a woman to perform traumatizing séances in the school. But soon our attention shifts to a borderline romantic relationship between Cathcart and the lonely Tom, a precocious child who seems attuned to the supernatural happenings in a way that escapes his adult caretakers (another genre convention, duly noted). [WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD! - The Editors]
Eventually, though, this relationship in all its inappropriateness is explained. The only intriguing part of the film revolves around a dollhouse containing figures that are being manipulated to reflect the on-screen happenings. Eventually, Florence finds herself looking into the dollhouse and seeing herself looking into the dollhouse. This revelation is the climax of the film, and everything hereafter is a denouement so breathless to explain why the film should be terrifying that it becomes almost laughable. “The Awakening” is essentially “The Sixth Sense” meets “Indian in the Cupboard,” and Tom is actually the half-brother of Florence who was murdered in front of her as a child. Oh, and the obsequious maid is actually his mother. The M. Night Shyamalans of the word rejoice as the audience realizes they’ve never seen Tom interact with Robert. Oh, and why is this just being revealed now? Because Florence repressed the memories. She “forgot” that this used to be her house. This entire time Tom has been waiting for the right moment to reawaken Florence’s memories by acting out his violent death with puppets inside of a small-scale recreation of the house. Got it. And since the thought-to-be menacing spirit is actually a small timid child, how did the death that catalyzed all of these events occur? Don’t ask.
Although with most movies featuring a “hidden gun” or big reveal I would worry about spoiling the surprise, “The Awakening” is such a parody of the horror genre that I feel there’s nothing to be ruined. It’s a classic battle of wills between a skeptic and a tormented child saying, “Please believe me.” It seems as if Nick Murphy got the idea for his film while directing the television show “Manor House,” and then put no more thought into his film apart from the setting, instead crafting a color-by-numbers plot that he thought could be salvaged by a convoluted falling action.
The last bit of plot involves the maid poisoning Florence to try to reunite her with the lonely Tom in the afterlife. Robert runs to get her the antidote, and the audience is left wondering whether she has lived or died. The final scenes show her still on the school grounds for the beginning of the new year, and we are supposed to search for clues about her ontological state. It seems like too little too late for a film in which we were just force-fed every bit of plot through heavy-handed explanation that lasted long enough to grant one or two watch glances and raised eyebrows.
“The Awakening” fails to live up to its most obvious influences, but it also fails to navigate the contours of a notoriously difficult genre. It’s a blockbuster horror movie hidden behind a British accent and a stylized 1920s veneer. While a suspenseful movie requires the audience to “play dumb” to a certain extent by suspending its disbelief, this particular film takes this dumbness as an immutable fact and treats its viewers to a thirty-minute SparkNotes presentation of “why horror is supposed to be frightening.”