This is a Time for Ghosts

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I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, horror is my favorite film genre. But that doesn’t stop me from occasionally getting aggravated by some of the female stereotypes that populate it. From madwomen in the attic to resilient final girls and overprotective mothers, horror is a genre that rarely deviates from the tired and true tropes that have captivated audiences for decades. Enter Florence Cathcart (played by actress Rebecca Hall) in a new British horror film titled THE AWAKENING (2012). Florence is a spunky science minded young writer who spends her days debunking séance-holding charlatans who prey on a grief stricken nation with promises that they can communicate with the dead.

The year is 1921 and England is recovering from a world war that killed over a million British soldiers, including a young man who Florence once loved. Con artists masquerading as spiritualists thrived during the country’s postwar recovery and routinely targeted vulnerable individuals who wanted to reunite with lost loved ones. Florence, a proud atheist who’s just as comfortable in a pair of man’s trousers as she is a long skirt, is driven to expose these frauds and has just published a popular book about her exploits. Her professional occupation is buoyed by her unspoken desire to reconnect with phantoms from her own past and put them to rest. In simple terms, she is a ghost hunter on a personal mission. She also happens to be one of the most interesting and well-constructed horror film heroines I’ve encountered.

Florence’s mission leads her to accept a ghost-hunting job at the secluded Rookford School for Boys after she’s approached by one of the teachers (Dominic West), a handsome man with a stammer who fought in The Great War and is obviously suffering the effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). He tells her the school is being haunted by a mysterious apparition that’s been spotted in photos and may be responsible for the recent death of a student. Naturally Florence is intrigued and agrees to take the job. It’s winter in England and the film is awash in smoky grays and muted greens, and as all ghost lovers know, that’s the time when spirits are particularly restless.

When Florence arrives at the school she’s greeted by the school matron (Imelda Staunton) who admires Florence and her book. Educated working women were a rarity in 1921 and for better or worse Florence’s reputation supersedes her. To other women Florence is someone to admire but men are threatened by her intellect and she soon finds out that most of the male teachers and school employees don’t want her there. Naturally this conflict adds some drama to the proceedings because all of the characters in THE AWAKENING are suspect. And like a detective in a classic Old Dark House film, Florence must use her powers of deduction to find out who or what committed murder and why ghosts may or may not be haunting the dark halls of Rookford School.

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To be fair, horror fans looking for a few cheap thrills and a typical tale of spooks on the loose may want to look elsewhere. This quiet, slow moving and beautifully photographed ghost story is more interested in the very real horrors that the characters experienced during WW1 than the phantasmagorical terrors that it hints at. As I suggested above, the traumatic effects of war and personal tragedy play an important role in THE AWAKENING. And as someone who has had firsthand experience with PTSD I found the film to be one of the smartest examples of mental duress that I’ve seen.

Mental illness is something that’s often romanticized in Hollywood or exploited in horror films. But THE AWAKENING refuses to subject its characters to the usual histrionics and violence that has become all too typical of the genre. This is a finely tuned psychological thriller that wears its mournful heart on its sleeve and is all the better for it. The film takes its cues from classic ghost movies such as THE INNOCENTS (1961), THE HAUNTING (1962) and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) as well as more recent additions to the genre including THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), THE OTHERS (2001) and THE ORPHANAGE (2007). But what separates THE AWAKENING from the pack is its heroine, the broadly defined Florence Cathcart, played to perfection by Rebecca Hall. Florence refuses to easily fit into the role of final girl, madwoman or child protector. She doesn’t haphazardly stumble into mystery and misadventure. She purposefully goes after the monsters hiding under the bed and in the process uncovers more about herself than she bargains for. And instead of falling apart or turning to stone under pressure, she successfully confronts every bogeyman she encounters.

Nick Murphy, who has worked on many successful BBC productions such as MANOR HOUSE (2002), directed and wrote THE AWAKENING along with Steven Volk who’s probably best known to horror fans for his work on Ken Russell’s GOTHIC (1986) and GHOST WATCH (1992). When it opened in a few select theaters last summer, THE AWAKENING was quickly dismissed by many critics who found the ending too ambiguous or ambitious (take your pick), and complained about its ‘Masterpiece Theater’ atmosphere as well as its slow pacing. Like most of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, it didn’t seem to gain any kind of solid support from the horror community either, which is a shame. I personally found it much more effective than Hammer’s recent attempt to tell a period ghost story in THE LADY IN BLACK (2012). And although THE AWAKENING is also a period piece, it’s more expansive and far-reaching. It also takes itself very seriously allowing viewers to be easily immersed in Florence’s world.

Some critics have complained that the film is unbearably grim but I appreciate its severity at a time when self-conscious parodies of the genre such as CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) are being hailed as great filmmaking. It might not be a flawless film but THE AWAKENING is a great looking movie that was obviously shot with care and much attention to period detail.  This atmospheric thriller contains a few surprises and some genuinely creepy moments supported by a fine cast of players. But it’s Rebecca Hall’s show and if you can’t appreciate her stellar performance as the high-minded Florence Cathcart, you won’t enjoy the film.

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Observation: Between 1914 and 1919 war and influenza have claimed more than a million lives in Britain alone.

Conclusion: This is a time for ghosts.

- from Francis Cathcart’s fictional book, “Seeing Through Ghosts.”

THE AWAKENING was recently released on DVD from Universal and can currently be seen at Amazon where it’s being streamed for a limited time.

33 Responses This is a Time for Ghosts
Posted By John Armstrong : February 7, 2013 4:00 pm

Thanks for this, Kimberly. I really enjoyed this film too, and agree with most of the points you make. I’m wondering if you’ve read the review on io9, which seems pretty diametrically opposed, particularly on the quality of Florence as a heroine. How would you respond (if at all) to Annalee Newitz’ complaints?

Posted By John Armstrong : February 7, 2013 4:00 pm

Thanks for this, Kimberly. I really enjoyed this film too, and agree with most of the points you make. I’m wondering if you’ve read the review on io9, which seems pretty diametrically opposed, particularly on the quality of Florence as a heroine. How would you respond (if at all) to Annalee Newitz’ complaints?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 4:15 pm

John – Thanks for the feedback. I don’t read io9 but I took a look at the review. To be frank, I first thought it was written by a much younger woman but apparently I’m wrong. In her attack on the film she claims it (and I quote) “has to do with a bunch of stuff that makes almost no sense” which says it all really. She clearly didn’t understand the movie at all and couldn’t associate with Hall’s character. The writer seems baffled by basic plot points, which she gets wrong. I don’t know what movie she was watching but it wasn’t the one I saw. To be fair, the writer also seems to think that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is one of the best films ever made so her idea of a good horror movie is about as far away from mine as one can get.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 4:15 pm

John – Thanks for the feedback. I don’t read io9 but I took a look at the review. To be frank, I first thought it was written by a much younger woman but apparently I’m wrong. In her attack on the film she claims it (and I quote) “has to do with a bunch of stuff that makes almost no sense” which says it all really. She clearly didn’t understand the movie at all and couldn’t associate with Hall’s character. The writer seems baffled by basic plot points, which she gets wrong. I don’t know what movie she was watching but it wasn’t the one I saw. To be fair, the writer also seems to think that THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is one of the best films ever made so her idea of a good horror movie is about as far away from mine as one can get.

Posted By Klara : February 7, 2013 4:52 pm

I was interested in seeing this, but didn’t know much about it. The photography in this looks great. I will check it out… Thanks!!! As a side, I can also relate to PTSD, btw –– stemming from watching as a plane flew into a building, from my rooftop in NY (9/11). Mine is nowhere near the level of a veteran, and it still feels absolutely horrible. I always think PTSD deserves way more attention in media and films.

Posted By Klara : February 7, 2013 4:52 pm

I was interested in seeing this, but didn’t know much about it. The photography in this looks great. I will check it out… Thanks!!! As a side, I can also relate to PTSD, btw –– stemming from watching as a plane flew into a building, from my rooftop in NY (9/11). Mine is nowhere near the level of a veteran, and it still feels absolutely horrible. I always think PTSD deserves way more attention in media and films.

Posted By Doug : February 7, 2013 4:54 pm

I’m a movie fan who likes all types of movies including some horror (but not torture porn-I’ve never seen “Saw”).
I hadn’t heard much of “The Awakening”, but after this review I will check it out.
Kimberly, do you think that perhaps the title is meant to remind us of the Kate Chopin book, as the film deals with a young woman who does not “fit” into the archetypes of 1920′s British society?

Posted By Doug : February 7, 2013 4:54 pm

I’m a movie fan who likes all types of movies including some horror (but not torture porn-I’ve never seen “Saw”).
I hadn’t heard much of “The Awakening”, but after this review I will check it out.
Kimberly, do you think that perhaps the title is meant to remind us of the Kate Chopin book, as the film deals with a young woman who does not “fit” into the archetypes of 1920′s British society?

Posted By Gene : February 7, 2013 5:01 pm

I note on Rotten Tomatoes that the audience approval is low. For a horror film these days I can take that as a good thing since what passes off as a good horror film often is more of a phantasmagoric amusement park ride rather than a movie. Ebert’s opinion is “Whatever”. I say these things not to discourage people from seeing the film just to show how widely diverse a critical reaction can be, and how it can sink even very good movies so unfairly.

With a mention of The Innocents (one of my very favorite films of any genre) my interest is immediately piqued. Also, what you say about the horror being more naturalistic is also very appealing. The ghosts and horrors of the mind and memory are not crowd pleasers but I find them to be quite satisfying when in the hands of the right filmmaker. As to female characters I agree there are few who are not cardboard cutouts but in horror films I think that is often the case overall. Thanks for bringing this film to light!

Posted By Gene : February 7, 2013 5:01 pm

I note on Rotten Tomatoes that the audience approval is low. For a horror film these days I can take that as a good thing since what passes off as a good horror film often is more of a phantasmagoric amusement park ride rather than a movie. Ebert’s opinion is “Whatever”. I say these things not to discourage people from seeing the film just to show how widely diverse a critical reaction can be, and how it can sink even very good movies so unfairly.

With a mention of The Innocents (one of my very favorite films of any genre) my interest is immediately piqued. Also, what you say about the horror being more naturalistic is also very appealing. The ghosts and horrors of the mind and memory are not crowd pleasers but I find them to be quite satisfying when in the hands of the right filmmaker. As to female characters I agree there are few who are not cardboard cutouts but in horror films I think that is often the case overall. Thanks for bringing this film to light!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 6:12 pm

Klara – The film is beautifully photographed (which I tried to capture in some of my screenshots) and for that alone, I think the film’s worth seeking out. And THE AWAKENING does an amazing job of dealing with a very tough topic (PTSD) in a genre that isn’t known for its sensitive portrayal of the mental illness and trauma. Hope you get a chance to see it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 6:12 pm

Klara – The film is beautifully photographed (which I tried to capture in some of my screenshots) and for that alone, I think the film’s worth seeking out. And THE AWAKENING does an amazing job of dealing with a very tough topic (PTSD) in a genre that isn’t known for its sensitive portrayal of the mental illness and trauma. Hope you get a chance to see it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 6:19 pm

Doug – Hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to see it. As for comparisons to Kate Chopin’s book, I suppose some could find similarities but *POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING* … the title refers to a very specific event that Francis deals with in the film. The truth is, all the characters are suffering from various forms of PTSD caused by trauma and the supernatural experiences she has at Rookford school help her have a sort of breakthrough so she can work on her recovery.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 6:19 pm

Doug – Hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to see it. As for comparisons to Kate Chopin’s book, I suppose some could find similarities but *POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING* … the title refers to a very specific event that Francis deals with in the film. The truth is, all the characters are suffering from various forms of PTSD caused by trauma and the supernatural experiences she has at Rookford school help her have a sort of breakthrough so she can work on her recovery.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 6:31 pm

Gene – THE AWAKENING was doomed to disappear from theaters quickly & without a trace once it received negative reviews from major outlets like The New York Time. The Los Angeles Times and Roger Ebert as you mentioned (which is utterly baffling to me considering some of movies he’s championed recently – particularly films dealing with death, loss, illness, trauma, etc.). I’m a long time horror aficionado but my own tastes rarely seem to align with most critics or the horror community in general these days. If you appreciate the old world charm of ghost stories written by Henry James and M. R. James I think you’ll find THE AWAKENING well worth a look.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 6:31 pm

Gene – THE AWAKENING was doomed to disappear from theaters quickly & without a trace once it received negative reviews from major outlets like The New York Time. The Los Angeles Times and Roger Ebert as you mentioned (which is utterly baffling to me considering some of movies he’s championed recently – particularly films dealing with death, loss, illness, trauma, etc.). I’m a long time horror aficionado but my own tastes rarely seem to align with most critics or the horror community in general these days. If you appreciate the old world charm of ghost stories written by Henry James and M. R. James I think you’ll find THE AWAKENING well worth a look.

Posted By Gene : February 7, 2013 7:11 pm

Kimberly – I will definitely seek this film out. Regarding Ebert, someone I greatly respect, I concur with what you say. I

Posted By Gene : February 7, 2013 7:11 pm

Kimberly – I will definitely seek this film out. Regarding Ebert, someone I greatly respect, I concur with what you say. I

Posted By Sergio : February 7, 2013 9:40 pm

I have the blu-ray of the film that was sent to me, but I put it in my “i’ll eventually get to it” Pile. Looks like I’m going to have to move it to the “see it now” shelf

Posted By Sergio : February 7, 2013 9:40 pm

I have the blu-ray of the film that was sent to me, but I put it in my “i’ll eventually get to it” Pile. Looks like I’m going to have to move it to the “see it now” shelf

Posted By Susan Doll : February 7, 2013 10:25 pm

Just put it in my Netflix queue. Thanks Kimberly.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 7, 2013 10:25 pm

Just put it in my Netflix queue. Thanks Kimberly.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 11:59 pm

Sergio – Hope you enjoy it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 7, 2013 11:59 pm

Sergio – Hope you enjoy it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 8, 2013 12:02 am

Susan – Thanks for the tip that the movie is now streaming on Netflix too. It wasn’t available there on the weekend so it must have just been uploaded. Hopefully that will give more people the opportunity to see it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 8, 2013 12:02 am

Susan – Thanks for the tip that the movie is now streaming on Netflix too. It wasn’t available there on the weekend so it must have just been uploaded. Hopefully that will give more people the opportunity to see it.

Posted By changeling69 : February 8, 2013 7:03 am

Thanx for the nifty heads up on The Awakening…I seem to have behind on many a horror flick these daZe:):)!

Posted By changeling69 : February 8, 2013 7:03 am

Thanx for the nifty heads up on The Awakening…I seem to have behind on many a horror flick these daZe:):)!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 8, 2013 10:08 am

Thanks for the heads up about this film. The cast looks excellent, as I am pretty sure Dominic West starred on The Wire, a show my oldest son, husband, and Dad liked. They didn’t believe me when I told them that Mr. West was from England. I also love The Innocents, and Masterpiece Theatre, so I will be putting this on our Netflix queue today.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 8, 2013 10:08 am

Thanks for the heads up about this film. The cast looks excellent, as I am pretty sure Dominic West starred on The Wire, a show my oldest son, husband, and Dad liked. They didn’t believe me when I told them that Mr. West was from England. I also love The Innocents, and Masterpiece Theatre, so I will be putting this on our Netflix queue today.

Posted By swac44 : February 11, 2013 4:42 pm

Considering that the last feature outing I saw Dominic West in was his deliriously over the top villain in the last Punisher outing, I look forward to doing something a bit more down-to-earth in this film. I’m with Gene, anything that follows in the footsteps of The Innocents and The Haunting immediately goes on my radar. Thankfully, there’s still a video rental place near me that stocks intriguing imports, and according to their website they have it in stock, so I’ll put it on my wish list.

Posted By swac44 : February 11, 2013 4:42 pm

Considering that the last feature outing I saw Dominic West in was his deliriously over the top villain in the last Punisher outing, I look forward to doing something a bit more down-to-earth in this film. I’m with Gene, anything that follows in the footsteps of The Innocents and The Haunting immediately goes on my radar. Thankfully, there’s still a video rental place near me that stocks intriguing imports, and according to their website they have it in stock, so I’ll put it on my wish list.

Posted By Bob Golden : June 26, 2014 9:10 pm

I’m guessing you’re referring to the Woman in Black (2012). That was a poor attempt compared to the TV movie The Woman in Black (1989).

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