If ParaNorman, also in theaters now, is a stop-motion-animated spin on the tried-and-true Scooby-Doo formula, then Nick Murphy’s The Awakening is the handsome, period-sensitive and refined interpretation of the beloved Ruby-Spears cartoon.
Standing in for the investigative Scooby gang is Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a skeptical ghost hunter operating in London in the years following World War I, when – as title cards inform – influenza and battle claimed more than a million lives in Britain, creating “a time for ghosts.” A supernatural ritual opening the film establishes Cathcart’s intolerance for charlatans as she pokes holes in the con games of paranormal frauds. You can understand her hesitance, then, when she’s approached by Robery Mallory (the great Dominic West), a history master at a prestigious boy’s academy who claims there’s a specter haunting his campus.
Surrounded by the gloomy period detail and washed out cinematography that has become routine for any horror movie set in the past, Cathcart ventures to the school to probe the murder of a young pupil. She’s met with an array of suspects, all of whom would fit nicely in a Clue sequel. Dowdy maid Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) lurks around every corner, protecting secrets. Sniveling instructor Malcolm McNair (Shaun Dooley) is an abusive teacher with an identifying cough. Even headmaster Mallory raises suspicions, though Florence has to spy on the handsome administrator through a keyhole to see that wicked scar on his naked thigh. Consider it one of the many small clues Murphy sprinkles throughout his staid ghost story.
If you believe in the possibility of paranormal activity, then unexplained, ghostly images floating through black-and-white photographs can be creepy. Unfortunately, The Awakening trades its ghostly potential for a litany of predictable scares. Worn-out dolls play off-key renditions of creepy nursery rhymes. Hands reach out of muddy lakes. Faces peek through holes in walls (accompanied by the requisite shriek on the score, which – naturally – is a mess of straining string instruments). You almost don’t blame Murphy and his co-screenwriter Stephen Volk when they begin drifting away from the unsatisfying supernatural thread to explore a forbidden romance between Hall and West’s suffering characters. It doesn’t materialize into anything of note, but at least it injects The Awakening with some necessary fire, if only for a moment.
The Awakening isn’t a bad movie. But it’s not a terribly original movie, either. And the “twist” is as clear as the writing on the classroom chalkboard, so long as you’re paying attention. Exquisite production design and admirable performances can’t overcome the lackluster scares. Imagine The Woman In Black without the undead woman, The Orphanage without that masked orphan, or Nicole Kidman’s The Others without those pesky, otherworldly “others,” and you pretty much have Awakening. If you’d prefer something scary, investigate those three thrillers instead.