AUGUST 18, 2012
A few weeks back I had to choose between press screenings of Red Lights or The Awakening, as they were both at the same time on the same night. I chose the former, and while I enjoyed it I haven't thought much about it since until today, when I was surprised to see that the two films not only shared a press screening date but nearly identical opening scenes of our hero debunking an alleged haunting. They also both have polarizing twists, but I'll get into that later.
Otherwise they're pretty different, as this is a traditional period ghost film in the vein of The Others and Devil's Backbone, complete with unusual children and a refreshing lack of the bullshit that unfortunately springs up too often in modern haunting films, such as computer research and haunted video cameras. Indeed, one of the film's more charming moments is when heroine Rebecca Hall (a wonderful presence) breaks out her equipment, which includes things as high tech as bells on string and some sort of powder that will leave residue on the feet of any "ghosts" (read: prankster children) that happen to walk through it. She has a meter that detects temperature changes, but otherwise she's forced to rely on her intellect and own two eyes to get to the bottom of the case, not a surveillance camera that records everything that happens while she sleeps.
As for the mystery, it's a pretty good one, and thankfully not too complicated. I think that the more you have to think about how the plot works, the less likely it is that you'll be scared - you're not able to "settle" enough for the boo moments to have their full effect. The Halloween series is the best example - the more we knew about Michael and why he did things, the less scary it became. Same sort of idea applies here, as thankfully the back-story isn't too intricate, and its clues are doled out at a nice pace that emphasizes character (and scares) for most of its runtime. Of course, this results in a bunch of exposition near the end as we are given the full story, but it's not a "cheat".
(SPOILERS AHEAD - skip the next paragraph if you don't want hints about the film's resolution)
You do, however, have to buy into the idea of repressed memory, something I have trouble with in movies. I don't doubt that people can literally forget major trauma, but I also think that movies tend to take great liberties with how those memories resurface. Take the movie The Number 23 (please!) - he reads a book HE HIMSELF WROTE, among many other things, before finally realizing all of these things were his own doing. It's not as extreme here, but it seems to me that the character with those repressed memories probably shouldn't have taken so long for something to set them off. That, along with an ambiguous ending, might kill your enjoyment of the film, especially if you're not even familiar with PTSD and its effects (the movie doesn't go into the disorder - being set in the early 1900s I'm not even sure if there was a name for it yet).
But until then, unless you simply have no patience for slow burn, atmospheric horror films, it'd be hard to find much fault with it. Again, Hall makes for a great lead - she's witty and able to give as good as she gets, and has wonderful chemistry with Dominic West, a school administrator who brings her in to investigate even though he thinks her studies are rubbish. And watching her find it increasingly difficult to explain away the things she is seeing is a fun journey, particularly when it reaches a turning point during a scene involving a dollhouse. I won't spoil the specifics, but it's easily the best dollhouse related scare I've ever seen (which is quite a bit, actually), and even better - it's not even the film's best scare.
The location is also terrific - an old manor rebuilt as a boarding school, allowing for several unused rooms for ghosts or people to hide, hidden passageways, etc. There's also a lake nearby and a creepy wooded area, both used sparingly to retain their sense of dread but not ignored to the point where you forget that they're there. Director Nick Murphy also gives us a good sense of the school's layout, so that when people are separated and in danger it's clear how far apart they are, an issue that plagues many "single location" horror films even though you'd think it would be a given that they make it clear, since we're there the whole time.
The film got a rather large release for this sort of thing, hitting 70 screens over the weekend (for comparison, Red Lights, with bigger stars and a more established distributor, only made it to 18), but it doesn't look like it made much of a splash, with a pretty low per screen average. Not surprising at all, but still a bit of a shame, considering how horror-starved this summer has been and that, you know, it's a good movie. Silver lining - it doesn't REQUIRE big-screen viewing, and will work just as well at home when it hits VOD and rental later this year (possibly even by Halloween time, since these smaller releases tend to hit video a lot faster than the big budget offerings). If you enjoyed the films mentioned, keep an eye out for it (or go see it - it's not too late!).
What say you?