Ghosts, goblins, entities of the unknownsupernatural horror has endured over centuries, long before the advent of cinema, and there are no signs the subgenre will be slowing down any time soon. With so many variations on the same topic, however, there is bound to be overlap and repetition. The keys to making them work boil down to (1) the spin its makers manage to put on said story, and (2) the effectiveness with which it is pulled off. "The Awakening" is reminiscent of 2001's "The Others
," 2007's "The Orphanage
" and, most recently, 2012's "The Woman in Black
." If it stumbles in the last leg with a contrived finale that doesn't quite know when to leave well enough alone, the sterling cast and a handful of appropriately freaky moments manage to lift the material above the inconsequential and pulpy.
In 1921 London, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a noted author and spirit debunker whose skill in calling out séance setups and fakery have made her an enemy to many grieving citizens who want nothing more than the solace of believing there is life after death for their loved oneswhether it's true or not. In her own way, Florence would love to believe the same thing, too, but she demands proof and has yet to find it. When history teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) invites her to travel with him back to the boarding school he works at to investigate a young boy's death that may or may not be related to a ghostly child allegedly glimpsed on the property, Florence hesitantly accepts. She is warmly welcomed by schoolmarm Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton), a straight-faced type who shares her paranormal skepticism, and promptly goes to work. With all but one child, Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), going home for holiday, Florence expects to be able to quietly go about her business and get out of thereuntil a series of events leaves her at first rattled, then suspicious that someone is playing an elaborate prank on her. Or could there be something going on that, for the first time, she cannot explain away?
"The Awakening" delivers a series of well-chosen jolts and unsettling ideasthere is a rabbit-headed doll found that plays the nursery rhyme "Ladybird, Ladybird" and a dollhouse that seems to construct its rooms based on real-life hauntings occurring at the schoolbut it is scarier in the moment than as a lasting emotion that permeates once the film is over. This may have something to do with its third-act revelations, marrying Florence's present with deep-buried memories from the past, followed up with a muddled last couple of scenes that demand more suspension of disbelief than any specter ever could. Before this point, though, writer-director Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk do a convincing job of not solely relying on horror theatrics to move its lead protagonist forward. As played with commitment and an underlying longing by Rebecca Hall (2010's "The Town
"), Florence yearns for a sign that there is something substantial beyond death, but she is consistently let down when her pursuits to disprove them are successful. Melding a cynical, but not completely closed, frame of mind up against occurrences that leave her grappling with what she's always thought she knew is an intriguing notion, and that is where "The Awakening" carves out an individual spot for itself. Otherwise, gee, it really is quite a lot like countless other pictures that have come before it.