Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) doesn't believe in ghosts. Like Sigourney Weaver's character in 'Red Lights,' she's pledged her life to debunking charlatan psychics and mediums that prey on grief-stricken people who have lost loved ones. Florence is good at her job. Her hatred for all things that seem paranormal – but certainly have a rational, scientific explanation – is the best part of the movie. It's too bad that only lasts for the first five minutes or so.
The movie begins as Cathcart enters a home where a séance is taking place. Strange stuff starts happening. Candles extinguish without help. Ghostly echoes fill the room. From behind, a small child approaches the group seated at a table. Only the reflection of the child is seen. Then, suddenly, Cathcart unearths the devious trickery in one fell swoop. She quickly explains all the tricks being used by the alleged medium. She's good at her job and appears to savor catching the louts who would take advantage of people's grief for monetary gain.
It's set in London in the early 20s. Cathcart is a semi-famous ghost hunter, although she hates that term. "How can you hunt something that doesn't exist?" she quips to Robert Mallory (Dominic West). Mallory has come to procure her services, hoping to put the rumor of a haunting at a local boarding school to rest. There have been far too many incidents and Mallory is afraid more people will get physically hurt if she doesn't stop whatever's going on.
Like all psychological horror movies about haunted houses, 'The Awakening' starts out with the standard list of artifacts: old photographs with blurred figures, creepy reflections, and the ever popular jump scare. There's really nothing about this BBC-produced film that distances it from the dozens of other haunted house movies out there.
Director Nick Murphy, along with cinematographer Eduard Grau, have crafted a beautifully dark image though. The story may me as ordinary as they come, but at least the movie looks good. Its dark, foreboding atmosphere meshes well with its dour attitude. Everyone in the movie wears a frown, or a grimace, so the gray-tinged, shadowy picture melds well.
It's just that whenever we get another one of these ghost stories, with a heroine stuck in the middle, there must always be a story behind the haunting. After a few scares we dive straight into the research part of the movie where the mystery must be unearthed. Then, after the research is done and the answers are beginning to come to light, one last twist must be thrown in to keep us all on our toes. The problem is that 'The Awakening' follows this formula to a fault. It never really deviates from it and when it does it travels down paths that don't make much sense in the long run.
Hall is much more convincing than she need be. A great actress stuck in a lifeless horror film. The same goes for West. The material provided here just doesn't match up to what the actors are capable of.
There were a few scares that were sufficiently spine-chilling. I wasn't entirely bored by the whole process, but mostly because the movie is morbidly beautiful. The whole evil kids plot device has become old hat. Yes, I find strange children as creepy as the next person, but even I don't think they're capable of this much.
The worst part of the movie is its twist, which doesn't seem to hold water. Sure it explains itself until you finally give up and say, "Well, I guess that's how it happened," but I was never convinced. It's an ending that seems born from necessity rather than creativity.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Released by Universal , 'The Awakening' is pressed onto a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. It's been packaged in a standard keepcase with a standard slipcover.
In the Movie Itself portion of this review I commented on how beautifully shot the film is. From a cinematographic aspect, the movie is quite striking. However, the Blu-ray transfer of the film seems to be suffering from an overabundance of noise, which truly hampers its overall quality.
The movie has the look of being shot with 16mm, but it was shot on 35mm. The grain structure goes far past being natural and enters the downright too busy for comfort stage. What we're seeing doesn't appear to be grain anyway. Black areas are swamped with noise that never stops. It drowns out the detail of the high-def picture. Mid-range shots suffer the most from this onslaught of noise. Most every mid-range shot is soft and undefined. Shadows are filled with so much noise that black areas are more grey than anything. This creates vague shadows that only serve to crush detail.
Close-ups are better with detail, but the unfocused background still pulsates with the ever-moving noise. There's a sequence around the 42:00 mark where the teachers of the school are questioning a couple of children in an empty room. This sequence perfectly shows the bad and good this transfer has to offer. There are some close-ups that are great. Facial detail looks good, you can even see the stubble on one of the teacher's faces. But then the camera pulls back on a mid-range shot of Dominic West and he looks absolutely covered in noise almost to the point of a pixelating effect. The type of noise I'm seeing here reminds me of noise that I've seen on old TV shows prepared for high-def. It just looks out of place and nasty.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, on the other hand, is a spooky delight. Haunted house movies rely just as much on their audio mix than they do on their frightening visuals to keep the audience scared. Immersive sound is a must, and that's what happens here.
The large house echoes with the laughter of school boys. The echoes travel from the front to the rear channels, making us feel like we were in the cavernous hallways of the school. When it comes time for the scary bits, all sorts of sounds can be heard coming from distant rooms and halls. Florence sets up trip wires tied to bells to hear if anyone passes through the hallways at night. Even the slightest jingle can be heard in the rear speakers. As the characters get closer to the sound it becomes more localized up front. Directionality plays a critical role in the movie and it works nicely here.
Low-end frequencies are in abundance here since there is apparently no other way to produce a jump scare. The sub-woofer is constantly letting out quick bursts whenever the movie calls for the audience to get a little jolt. Dialogue is always clear. This is one of those movies where everyone whispers their lines, so it's nice that you can hear them whisper clearly.
The special features are presented in 1080i.
There's a grim moodiness to 'The Awakening,' but its horror concepts fall flat. The haunted house movie has been done over and over. There's just nothing here that warrants special mention. There's nothing that distances this movie from the hundreds of other ghostly movies out there. The video presentation is a peculiar one to say the least. The audio is great though. It provides most of the scares. The special features package is long in run-time, but feels a little redundant with its interviews after a while. This one may be worth a look if you're interested.