What is it about England that makes it the perfect setting for ghost stories? Is it the rainy and bleak weather? The turn-of-the-century period décor has something to do with it I'm sure. From Sherlock Holmes mysteries to "The Woman in Black" and "The Others," it seems Merry Ole England stands in the public eye as one of the most haunted countries in the world. BBC Films continues to feed this perception with the beautifully frightful "The Awakening."
The England of 1921 is suffering from the aftermath of World War I. Many people look to spiritualists for comfort by contacting those dead and missing through different occult avenues. Hoax exposer Florence Cathcart travels the country debunking charlatans who use rigged séances and elaborate trickery to fool the innocent looking for answers from the afterlife. The skeptical woman is hired to investigate the appearances of a ghost boy at a secluded boarding school in the countryside. After several attempts at pinning the specters on mischievous students, Cathcart fights to prove to herself that the supernatural events she's experiencing aren't real.
It's evident that Director / Co-writer Nick Murphy had more on his mind when making "The Awakening" than what initially shows up on screen. He states in the extra features that the movie explores the reaction England had to the First World War and uses that as the basis for the events and attitudes of the characters. Florence Cathcart lost her belief in God or the afterlife because her fiancé was killed in the war. Almost everyone in the film was affected in some way by the war, whether it is directly or indirectly.
Murphy used the time period to his advantage and created an effectively disturbing and gripping tale. It has some great twists and a wonderful setting in the quiet gray halls of an abandoned boarding house. Just don't expect the same types of jump-scares we get in Hollywood horror stories. "The Awakening" is sophisticated and provides its frights a little at a time.
Every actor in "The Awakening" delivers a standout performance. Imelda Staunton does a fabulous job playing the over-protective and nervous housekeeper named Maud Hill. Rebecca Hall completely embraces her unbelieving character and shifts through a huge range of emotions with ease as Florence Cathcart.
The DVD version of "The Awakening" contains deleted scenes with introductions by Director / Co-writer Nick Murphy. There's also a 25-minute featurette entitled "A Time for Ghosts," which explores the setting and impact of historical events on the movie. It also delves into the history of spiritualism in England.
Viewing "The Awakening" is as pleasurable an experience as you can have watching a gothic horror story. Everything you want in a classic ghost tale is present - a big dark house, suspicious characters, and spectral presences. It also offers many deeper reflections on life than what we get from most modern American horror films.