By Joseph McAleer
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Things go bump in the night — and during the day — in "The Awakening" (Cohen Media Group), an old-fashioned horror movie set in a big haunted house in the remote English countryside.
First-time director Nick Murphy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stephen Volk, has crafted a stylish murder mystery with an intriguing historical context. The early 1920s were "a time for ghosts" in Europe since millions had died between 1914 and1919 because of the double scourges of World War I and the Spanish influenza. Some survivors turned to the occult and the paranormal as they desperately sought to "connect" with their departed loved ones.
But that’s all nonsense, insists Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall). Her mission is to expose the hoaxers and charlatans who stage phony seances. She eschews the label "ghost hunter," though: "You can’t hunt what doesn’t exist," she says.
Florence will have to change her mind rather quickly after she gets a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West) and accepts the challenge he sets her. Robert teaches history at Rookwood, a boys’ boarding school that occupies what was once a grand country manse. A student there has died under mysterious circumstances, and his classmates are blaming a specter who, they claim, haunts the place dressed like one of them.
"These boys are frightened to death," Robert informs Florence.
Florence — who relies exclusively on science and palpable facts — is dismissive. "Boys believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy," she says. "I’m sure some of them even believe in God."
To prove her point, Florence sets up all sorts of electrical contraptions and cameras in the sprawling school. She is assisted by Maud (Imelda Staunton), the establishment’s sympathetic matron, and by Thomas (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a pale, withdrawn lad who, unlike all his peers, has not gone home for vacation.
As Florence begins her investigation, a cast of stock characters comes under suspicion, including the peeping-Tom gardener (Cal Macaninch) and a sadistic teacher (Shaun Dooley) who administers corporal punishment with relish.
Before long, wires are being tripped and cameras are flashing as mysterious phenomena come to light. "The Awakening" morphs into a roller-coaster ride through a maze of rooms and hidden passageways. It’s a mildly scary game of cat and mouse as Florence tracks the ghost — and uncovers her own personal demons in the process.
The film contains some bloody violence, an attempted rape, a nongraphic nonmarital sexual encounter as well as brief upper female and rear nudity in a nonsexual context. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.