In the 1920s, it was still possible, even commonplace, to believe in ghosts. Phony mediums such as Helen Duncan and Mina Crandon were internationally notorious. Fake psychics were such a prominent part of the culture that Scientific American magazine offered a cash prize in 1924 to any spiritualist that could prove their telekinetic ability under careful scientific controls, a contest where “Margery” Crandon nearly fooled a team of medical doctors into believing her powers were real. In the shadow of the First World War, many people wanted a sense of finality in their relationship with loved ones who had passed away too soon, a vulnerability that many dishonest so-called-mystics were happy to exploit.
There is a rich movie to be made about this culture of fake seers and gullible marks, but it isn’t The Awakening, a dull British import that never lives up to the pretensions of its period setting.
Rebecca Hall, who played the neurotic fusspot to Scarlett Johansson’s flirt in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is here to punch a ticket that is required for all rising actresses: playing a scream queen in a haunted-house movie. That said, her character, Florence Cathcart, is a bit more sophisticated than the norm. She’s a Cambridge-educated society lady and a famous exposer of hoaxes who takes “jobs” showing up at the sites of alleged paranormal activity to disprove their supernatural providence. In the film’s opening scene, she confidently busts up a phony séance the same way cops take down card games in mob movies. (They even cart people away in police vans. Apparently, fraudulent mysticism wasn’t taken lightly back then.)
Florence’s rational certainty is tested when she is invited to a boarding school to investigate a case in which children are literally being scared to death. But it’s not just any boarding school. It occupies the most portentous, creaky manor imaginable. Billiard balls fall down the stairs, and doors slam closed without explanation. There’s a large, gory portrait of Judith beheading an Assyrian general above the mantelpiece. The headmaster is played by Imelda Staunton, whose unnaturally round face and tightlipped smile should have turned Florence around the minute she arrived. Guess what? The ghosts are real.
Though the premise seems fun – Florence tries to ghostbust the mansion using period technology, little tripwires and snare traps intended to catch the naughty children she thinks are perpetrating a hoax – the execution is humourless. Nick Murphy’s debut film is shot with a stately grey-blue pallet that evokes a haunted postwar England, where the spectre of a lost generation hangs like a thick fog. While mourning the war dead is a great device for a horror movie, and was used to much creepier effect in the Nicole Kidman movie The Others, here the setting turns out to be incidental. As soon as the shopworn scare shots start piling up – Florence closes a mirror and sees an apparition behind her – it’s apparent that the film could be set whenever. Just change some names and update the clothing.