SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011




(Although every care has been taken to remove major plot spoilers, some may remain ~ watch before reading!)

Prior to seeing new British haunted house (or haunted old boys boarding school in the country) movie, THE AWAKENING, I was thinking - as I sat in the packed out, darkened auditorium for a much-anticipated screening of this movie as part of the London Film Festival - that there have been two previous 'awakenings’ that I’ve liked a great deal. The first is the slightly creaky old-fashioned horror movie THE AWAKENING (1980), a splendidly lurid Egyptian curse on an archaeologist’s malevolent daughter-movie starring Charlton Heston and Susannah York; a real time capsule of mumbo jumbo horror, but a whole tombful of old-fashioned frights and general mummified fun too.

The other ‘awakening’ I like is the 1984 Peter Davison Doctor Who oddity. A really memorable village setting (and the last time 25 minute long episodes of Doctor Who were screened) perfectly stokes a twisted plot from Eric Pringle about civil war re-enactments becoming real; the planned burning of a May Queen - and a green-glowing-eyed giant stone face appearing in a local church and pushing its way through crumbling old walls. The quaint village setting and folklore-ridden script really gives this adventure the feel of an old Hammer Horror twinned with woody snickets of THE WICKER MAN – and also features a first for the series: an evil entity vomiting, quite disgustingly, on the floor of the Tardis. Kids today just don’t know what they’re missing in modern-era Doctor Who!

Such random thoughts on how – maybe – the title of this latest ‘Awakening’ isn’t perhaps the most original of beasts, (and to be honest, by the end of the movie, I still wasn’t sure the title best describes the film) were forgotten as soon as charismatic and encouragingly chipper director Nick Murphy rushes on stage to tell us how proud he is of being the one in front of the audience talking about his movie - as opposed to those he watched as a boy that used to inspire him to one day do the same.

Murphy clearly has many fond memories of the cinema: he tells us he spent a happy childhood watching movies alone in an old a(nd now fondly remembered) old-fashioned picture house where he used to live - although I'm not sure at this point how he feels about us all watching his own movie in a more modern multiplex in the heart of Leicester Square! He then warns us that there are at least three ghosts among the audience tonight, and nods in the direction of the seats I am sitting among – believe me, by the end of the movie I believe those ghosts are real without the need for trickery. Initially, I half expect a couple to stand up and shout BOO! anyway, as part of an elaborate prank or gimmick; like the old haunted house movies of old would go in for – bats on wires launched above your head and the like!

Murphy thanks the projectionists and team behind-the-scenes at Vue Cinema, Leicester Square for spending time on getting the screening of his film just right – and listening to all his suggestions. THE AWAKENING seems to be a film that (using plenty of audio and visual trickery) needs to be shown right. By the time a shotgun is used in the final reel, and the echoing rumble of sound fades slowly away after initial ear-splitting shots, I feel like either standing up and clapping the cinema’s sound system - or taking it to court for a lifetime of tinnitus.

THE AWAKENING of course, is a film that’s hard to talk too much about. There are many plot twists, sudden turns and sheer shocks throughout. Perhaps one or two too many instances of all the above, to be picky, but for me, I was happy with all the swirling, unpredictable streams of supernatural consciousness. There is one twist involving a boy’s death, locked outside the school, that seems to end the film in its tracks prematurely – a smart sleight of hand. Rebecca Hall (first seen as a young girl in THE CAMOMILE LAWN followed by a grown-up star turn in Woody Allen’s VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA a few years later and other high profile movies such as FROST/NIXON and DORIAN GRAY) plays Florence Cathcart; a fake spook exposer in a shell-shocked England, post-First World War, the year 1921 - a time of sickness; both post-shock of the horrors of the battlefield and post-epidemics. It’s not surprising that many are turning to mediums to find their lost loved ones. Florence helpfully exposes all the trickery, but – in an effective and original opening scene – this exposure isn’t welcomed even by those who are being tricked. Some spirits however are undoubtedly real. Or so she is about to be told.

Florence receives a visit from the handsome, if haunted (of looks and of house and home), Robert Mallory; a teacher at a private boarding school for boys in the country. Dominic West is perfect as Mallory; a charismatic and withdrawn ‘little boy lost’ performance. Part-dashing, part-Dashwood. Like those who are reeling across the country from the loss of loved ones, the boys at his school are equally lost and lonely. They are, well - as good as orphans, despite being collected during the holidays by their parents. All except for one poor lad whose parents are unable to collect him as the journey is too far. So, during the school holidays, it’s just him in the house, along with the fussing, furrow-browed matron (Imelda Staunton in a fabulous portrayal of malevolence and love – you never really know which) - and Mr Mallory.

The lost and lonely schoolboy is played by Isaac Hempstead Wright, who really is outstanding in conveying quiet uncertainty and devil-may-careness – you just want to give him a big hug at times to tell him all will be alright. But with so many things going bump in the night around him, he probably wouldn’t believe any words of comfort, other than - “Run!”

Like the grown up roll call around them, all the young cast of schoolboys are excellent – less Harry Potter, more Harry House of Horror. Young Alfie Field is especially good as Victor Parry, the schoolboy haunted by ghosts himself but also blamed for the supernatural death of another bullied schoolboy at the start of the film. The dead boy had been literally scared to death. Poor Victor just wants everyone to know that it was a real ghost that was "out there sir!". Florence has been invited to the school to sort out fact from fiction. Good luck with that!

Writer Stephen Volk (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Nick Murphy) is no stranger to sorting fact from fiction, or rather blurring the lines. Volk was also the writer of the BBC'S ‘is this actually real?’ live Halloween chiller GHOSTWATCH – in which a crew of BBC ghost investigators and celebrity hosts came under fire from a malevolent spirit (Mr Pipes), and consequently scared the whole nation into believing this was all real, rather than a scripted drama. The show was banned from transmission by the BBC for many years, so strong was the sense of outrage among some viewers, who had never heard of the ‘transmitted as live’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast - or even the TV science report that was actually a drama in disguise (with a broadcast date of April 1st - right?) called ALTERNATIVE 3 - a supposedly ‘real’ scientific documentary about brainy experts in their field being captured by aliens, that had the tagline It’s all true, except the lies! and was a possible forerunner to Ghostwatch.

The screenplay of THE AWAKENING builds layers of scares; creates unease. It has its own style and concerns, but similar movies, including THE INNOCENTS and THE OTHERS are invoked here, and for me - especially the 1995 James Herbert adaptation HAUNTED. 

Every other moment in this new movie seems designed to make you jump out of your seat in shock – and the audience at the screening I attended, did. Many times. There was also a lot of random, nervous laughter. I suspect every director or writer of a ghost movie out there must hope for this reaction. But no really scary movie would be complete without the character of a skulking, scary old groundsman padding around in the woods - and in this movie he's called Judd, played with a scene-stealingly creepy, sly venom by droopy-jawed Joseph Mawle (like Isaac Hempstead Wright - also to be spotted in hit TV fantasy series GAME OF THRONES).

Throughout the movie, you know that something is up with Judd – he walks around with a shotgun and has a haunted look to his eyes; like it wouldn’t matter at all if he actually pulled that trigger. Towards the end of the movie, he looks through a window and gets the shock – or thrill – of his life. It’s a well-trodden role (my favourite of its type being The Woodcutter from TV series Hammer House of Horror’s CHILDREN OF THE FULL MOON - an episode that's probably a series best) but given extra gravitas by the fact this man has a story to tell; his post-traumatic stress disorder being that he wasn’t there; avoiding the call-up on grounds of ill-health. Whether a real excuse or not, it’s a real reason for him to feel shame; to be outcasted by those braver or suffering the more heroic kind of PTSD.

Of course, along with all the carefully realised characters in this house of the dead - and as mentioned earlier; all the shock scare tactics you could hope for also get thrown into the haunted mix. The plot twists are genuinely unguessable and don’t feel at all contrived. It’s quite a thrill embracing the frightening fun and games, if a bit draining as there are so many. But, for the love of Yvette Fielding (from TV's MOST HAUNTED) – what else do you want going into a ghost movie set in a boys boarding school in the country? CRANFORD this ain’t (well, actually, it kind of is - at times!) It’s supposed to scare you senseless. A couple of the jumps made me tingle all over for a good minute or so - a kind of frightened buzz that didn’t just fade away quickly, as expected, but remained: an almost orgasm of fear, perhaps (and the Big 'O' has some significance in this movie - as we will discover shortly). On repeated viewings, I don't think these shocks will be as effective and the movie will take on a new persona - like many an old-fashioned seance, the shocks in THE AWAKENING rely on fake belief and a certain amount of trickery to work. Writers Murphy and Volk are as much tricksters here as the fake mediums of the past they lambast and even seem to despise.

Director Nick Murphy (bolstered by sublime work from cinematographer Eduard Grau) shoots and saturates the movie in cold, heartless, dead-tinted hues and handles the shock bits very well – often brilliantly. The film is shot in colour, but in bright early morning blues and greys, so the feel of the film is like being in an old black and white photograph from, well – 1921.

Rebecca Hall is astoundingly beautiful and enticing as Florence, even when sifting through the most bizarre spook-detecting gadgets and devices, or running through the houses of fake mediums - exposing the lies like a well-to-do Lady Sherlock. Rebecca is the daughter of theatre director Peter Hall, and was schooled at some of the country’s finest public schools, so she doesn’t seem at all out of place in the middle of a dining hall-full of old-fashioned public schoolboys; possibly more ‘in-place’ than some of the actual schoolboys.

This doesn’t detract from her performance which is imbued with energy, wit, barely subdued desire and card-carrying personal loss. Florence has her own agenda for trying to expose fake mediums and ghost sightings; having lost her parents in a tragic accident - anger understandably burns away inside her when she confronts those who offer false hope. Florence knows there’s a missing part to the puzzle she certainly won’t (unlike some of those poor souls also searching for the dead out there) find in the fakes.

Like all the best actresses, for all the best directors – the leading lady is shot with love; Rebecca Hall’s face and body framed against stark backgrounds in full, leering (but never tacky or forced – only natural) close-ups. Sometimes the camera veering so far towards the actress’s freckled face and full, bee-stung lips that it’s almost like we are looming in for the kiss; reminding of how some directors such as Polanski framed the pouting, ravishing, clearly adored stars of their films with genuine obsession - remember Nastassja Kinski in films such as TESS for Polanski, almost in a ritual of would-be lovemaking and general flirting or falling in love for the lens (which of course, behind the camera, Polanski was doing – seducing his young rising star and letting her beauty; his obsession, filter through into the movie itself like a great beast pouncing on prey and bleeding desire into every frame).

Sometimes an actress (or an actor) is so charismatic that every scene they are in seems like a framed photograph celebrating their beauty; an obsession on the part of the director. Rebecca Hall, without doubt, has cast that spell on her director here; her performance seethes with a first crush kind of energy - and sexuality is made explicit when she spies through the keyhole of a bathroom door (in a scene that we could compare with PSYCHO but actually comes more in the tradition of innocent wartime ‘what the butler saw’ moments) - and gazes longingly at Robert's naked, toned flesh rising out of the bath; like a forbidden, unreachable thing.

Later, Florence also takes a bath having just increased the sexual tension in the house between herself and Robert when she ends up clothed only in a blanket after a nearly tragic accident in the lake; a timely rescue from Robert ends with Florence rushed inside to the warmth of the house. There's a palpable sense of vulnerability and sexual tension as Robert runs a bath for her; and a sense of impending release from years of repression, for both of them.

As Florence lies in the bath, deep in thought, her hands slide down over glistening flesh (after first touching a childhood scar on her shoulder that she obtained the day her parents died) - one hand reaching down under the water; ready now to relieve her frustration at everything that's hidden in her world (both the real and the supernatural) and probably for the first time in a long while. An orgasm here is clearly a form of release from a lifetime of repression for Florence; perhaps in the same way the search for truth about the afterlife is seen by some as the one last impossible 'orgasm' out there: orgasm itself has been described as the 'little death' since medieval times, so possible stepping stones to a far bigger question needing to be answered - and one that Florence is getting closer to finding out.

Author and scriptwriter Stephen Volk co-wrote the screenplay and it may well be his input that results in the fake mumbo jumbo-exposing, as well as the more serious meditations on the afterlife and the nature of loss, never feeling patronising or unresearched – but convincing and sure-footed. Volk is often to be found on psychic research forums and media debating the nature of the afterlife and ways to contact the dead – real or otherwise, and has often had scathing words for what he views as the 'fake psychics' out there. There is some debate as to how much of the final script is Nick Murphy's or Volk's - finding out the ratio seems nearly as impossible a task as proving the existence of an afterlife. And I won't be resorting to Florence's orgasm technique to find out.

The beauty of THE AWAKENING rests in the fact that, during the end credits, you feel like you have understood something further about the spirit world – I felt quite tearful in fact, at the end, not because I was scared. Which I had been at times; or certainly made to jump. Or even because the film was an outstanding ghost story and a worthy entry into the genre of 'Are they real or aren't they?' movies.

I’m not sure what aspect of this movie affected me so deeply. The film does have an upsetting yet beautiful plot twist towards the end that plays with ideas of good and bad, of what's real and unreal; of life and afterlife – in a way that the best ghost stories have managed before; from such masters of the craft as M.R.James. But I think the way I felt went beyond this – in the same way films such as The Exorcist or The Omen are said to have tapped into what some have seen as real evil (although urban legends in the horror genre are legion and know no bounds), I think The Awakening taps into something that feels real as well; and it's all about the afterlife. But like ghost investigator Florence Cathcart (who deserves a sequel or two), I have no idea – yet – what that reality is. Like some others in this movie; I don’t think I should be telling anyway - even if I did know.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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