There's probably some great psychology/sociology book out there that analyzes why we like ghost stories, why they appear in nearly every culture, and why they're generally the first horror concept each culture develops. Presumably it has something to do with wish fulfillment dreams polluted by the fear of death, and universal taboos that make us recoil from decaying bodies. In any case, ghosts have been a source of terror in literature at least as far back as “Macbeth,” and for most of the history of cinema.
“The Awakening” — directed by Nick Murphy from a script he cowrote with Stephen Volk — is firmly in the creepy, genteel category of ghost stories. There is no gore — almost no blood, in fact — and the scares mostly result not from what we see, but from what we don't see.
Rebecca Hall (“The Prestige,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) stars as Florence Cathcart, a well-educated young British woman, who — a la Houdini — has devoted herself to debunking fake spiritualism. It's 1921, and England is haunted by legions of metaphoric ghosts. The nation is still reeling from World War I, in which it lost hundreds of thousands of young men, many to horrors previously unknown; and from the 1918-1919 flu epidemic, the death count of which rivals the Black Plague.
Virtually everyone has lost family members, which creates a lively business atmosphere for bogus mediums and other bloodsucking poseurs. Having written “Seeing through Ghosts,” a popular book debunking these frauds, Florence is in constant demand. When Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher at a boarding school in the country, asks her to investigate ghost sightings at the school, she reluctantly agrees.
Florence's mind is haunted by thoughts of the fiance she was cold to right before he died in the fighting. Mallory, a veteran with a limp and his own guilt issues, seems constantly depressed. The story she gleans from Mallory and from Maud (Imelda Staunton), the matron, tells of a boy who was violently killed some 18 years earlier, but keeps turning up as a filmy apparition in the annual school portrait. Some students claim to have seen or felt his presence, and one has recently leaped to his death from fright.
In no time flat, Florence appears to have found a human agency responsible for the new death. Before she can leave, however, the students take off for vacation, leaving her alone with Mallory, Maud, the nasty groundskeeper, and one student, Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), who has nowhere else to go. Soon Florence is besieged by strange sounds, creepy fragments of visions, and other inexplicable signs that the ghost is real. Is he? Or isn't he?
I wouldn't dream of giving the answer away. For the first three-quarters or so of the movie, Murphy demonstrates a sure knowledge of all the genre's standard fright tricks — sudden noises, something moving in the corner of the frame so briefly that we're barely sure we saw it, and hints of peril that turn out to be false alarms. It is, in short, atmospheric and unsettling.
Then, in the last 20 minutes, it all goes to hell. Everything is turned upside down with a plot twist that is dumped on us: a dizzying outpouring of exposition revealing absolutely essential info that has barely been hinted at. A few moments that might seem like bad storytelling — e.g., a trivial but incongruous object that is framed to imply importance, but is never, until the very end, followed up on — turn out to be hints, but not very good ones.
Like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others,” everything we've seen is given a new context, but, unlike those, a second viewing isn't rewarding. It's not the same twist as in those two vastly superior films, but it is presented in the same manner.
Hall's fine performance helps some, but it can't fully compensate for the explosion of nonsense at the end.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).