Sunday, January 19, 2014

Horror Film Review

The Awakening (2011):  Classy horror from the U.K. that, if I'm honest, is a welcome break from the schlocky, B-grade fare to which I normally subject myself.  Don't get me wrong; I do love low-budget train wrecks no matter how scathing my reviews of them are.  Sometimes, though, exquisite acting, sumptuous cinematography, and complex plotting is a breath of fresh air. 

Author Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a dedicated exposer of psychic charlatans in 1921 London.  Her notoriety draws Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to her door.  He requests she investigate claims of sightings of a ghost boy at his boarding school.  Mallory explains that many years ago when the school was a private residence, a lad died under suspicious circumstances.  Now, another boy has died under equally suspicious circumstances.  She balks for roughly 30 seconds, then they're off to the countryside. 

The school is  a massive pile of dreary gray stone, isolated and foreboding.  Creepy groundskeeper Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle) dodged service in WWI and skulks about toting a shotgun.  Wounded vet Mallory justifiably loathes the man.  Kindly headmistress Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) keeps a copy of Florence's book "Seeing Through Ghosts" next to her Bible.  Needless to say, she's a fan.  Loner student Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright) takes an interest in Florence and her array of spirit-detecting equipment which has a decidedly steampunk flavor.  Within mere hours of arriving, Florence solves the recent murder (an instructor left the boy outside to teach him a lesson, but an asthma attack brought on by fear ended his life) as well as the ghost sightings (on a dare, a boy pulled a pillow case over his head and slunk around the school).  The next day begins a school break, so parents come and collect their children, leaving only Florence, Malloy, Maud, Judd, and Tom (the boy's parents are in India).  As you may imagine, it's at this point when atheist and skeptic Florence starts experiencing the unexplainable, if not the impossible. 

I can't in good conscience continue with the plot summary because what occurs next is simply too good to spoil.  Admittedly, I was confused for a time, but then...oh, but then came that marvelous feeling one gets when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and you finally understand.  It's akin to the scene in The Usual Suspects when you realize who Kevin Spacey really is.  I did not see it coming.  Brilliant.

The Skinny

Acting:  I decided that if Emma Thompson and Benedict Cumberbatch had a daughter, she would be exactly like Rebecca Hall, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the desperate and damaged Florence.  West is equally outstanding, playing the guilt-ridden Mallory with subtlety and grace.  Even the pre-adolescent Wright commands the screen in his scenes as the forlorn Tom.
Story:  Beautifully layered in its composition, cathartic and heartbreaking in its execution. It deftly avoids the pitfalls and clich├ęs that inevitably plague the 'haunted house' sub-genre.
Direction:  Some may argue this film's pacing is too slow.  These people are called morons.  The narrative unfolds at a perfect rate of speed, building gradually at first and then frenetically towards what is ostensibly a surprise climax.
Production Values:  Filmed mostly in Scotland for only three million euros.  You will not find studio sets or green screen scenery here.  It's all real and all stunning. 
Gore/FX:  There is a smidgen of blood but nothing super gross.  Minimal CGI but used to great effect.
Scares:  There is one you won't see coming that will most definitely elicit an underwear crisis. 
Ending:  Sorry.  Spoilers.
Verdict:  Should you see The Awakening?  No question.  Not only will it cause you to jump out of your skin, it will also make you cry.  How many horror flicks can make that claim?

Rating:  5 out of 5

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