Florence is also a kind of low-tech ghostbuster, using her suitcase of primitive cameras and apothecary equipment to debunk fraudulent psychics and mediums. In the years following World War I, a spiritualism craze has swept through England as grieving families pay con artists to communicate with their dead soldiers. Florence aims to put a stop to the nonsense.
New to DVD and Blu-ray this week, The Awakening is a stately and satisfying ghost story that follows Florence as she attempts to debunk a haunting at an isolated boys' boarding school. It's an old-fashioned kind of scary movie, full of dusty parlors, creepy dollhouses and lonesome ghosts.
British actress Rebecca Hall (The Town) is compelling and convincing in the lead role, playing a damaged woman haunted by her own past. Florence lost the love of her life in the war, and her rationalist crusade is a way to bury her pain.
The boarding school is said to be haunted by the restless ghost of a boy who frightens the other kids (occasionally to death). Florence soon meets the school matron (Imelda Staunton), who appears to know more about the haunting than she's letting on. Also on hand is the handsome but traumatized teacher Robert Malory (Dominic West), a war veteran with lingering psychological wounds.
Events progress and Florence finds her scientific skepticism challenged by increasingly scary encounters. The ghost manifests as a blurry schoolboy phantom and director Nick Murphy subscribes to the less-is-more theory of suspense: We don't see much of the ghost, so that when we do it's a lean-forward kind of moment.
The Awakening blends in elements of period drama and whodunit to the old haunted-manor-on-the-moors story. In early scenes, Florence is depicted as Sherlock Holmes type of character, using reason and deduction to solve seemingly paranormal mysteries. The school is populated with minor characters who may have secrets of their own – a consumptive English teacher, a sinister groundskeeper, a vicar who's lost his faith.
A romance even blooms between Florence and Robert, who choose the worst possible moment to let their passions run wild. Secrets are revealed and Florence finds she has connection to the boarding school that changes everything.
The cinematography in The Awakening is quite beautiful, steeped in slate grays and somber skies. It's not a particularly scary movie, and there's no violence or language to speak of. I'm not sure why it's rated R at all. The ending doesn't quite work, but that's easy to forgive. Ghost stories are hard to end properly. The pleasures in The Awakening are found in mood and tone and the creepy delights of old English boarding houses that go bump in the night.
Extras: The DVD and Blu-ray versions feature an extended interview with director Nick Murphy, plus four behind-the-scenes featurettes including technical breakdowns of individual scenes. Most interesting are the deleted scenes, each presented with an introduction by Murphy. Dedicated horror movie nerds will appreciate the level of detail here, as Murphy explains the challenges of assembling a properly paced scary movie.
Also New This Week:
Tales of the Night: A gorgeous French animation import for kids, with fables presented as shadow plays against intricate, colorful backdrops. Highly recommended.
Hotel Transylvania: Adam Sandler and Kevin James headline the voice cast in last Halloween's hit animated family feature.
Paranormal Activity 4: More scary business as surveillance cameras capture supernatural mischief in the fourth installment of the popular found-footage franchise.
Seven Psychopaths: Director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) returns with a haywire L.A. crime comedy. Check out this cast: Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell and Tom Waits.
Femmes Fatales: The Complete First Season
Note: This was written by Glenn McDonald, a Digital Crave contributor.
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