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Deep Cuts: The Awakening

Contributed by
Apr 5, 2019

The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today we're looking at truly underappreciated gothic horror flick The Awakening.

"Imagine if Downton Abbey were haunted. And hotter." That's how I imagine the pitch for British TV director Nick Murphy's feature film debut, The Awakening. Set within a posh English estate in 1921, this chilling and elegant bit of gothic horror spins a story of ghosts, terror, and romance, with period piece austerity, but modern verve. Why this 2011 offering has been so underseen and undersung is utterly beyond me. 

Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, an educated upper-class woman whose life's work is exposing hoaxes in the world of séances and spiritualism. Florence does not believe in ghosts and kicks off the film by ripping away the smoke and mirrors of con men masquerading as clairvoyants. Armed with a ruthless logic and a healthy dose of skepticism, she's like the '20s answer to Agent Scully. Beneath the surface of her smirking bravado, however, lies deep grief over her fiancé, who was killed in World War I. Beyond that lies her deep desire to believe in life (and love) after death. 

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So, when dashing teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) begs Florence to investigate a haunting at his boarding school, she's intrigued. The students believe a "murdered child" not only haunts the halls but also is responsible for the death of one of their classmates. Florence rolls her big, bright eyes at all of this. But she's compelled to travel to the opulent school, and investigate what secrets lurk within its walls. 

The Awakening begins as a detective story, with Florence its confident sleuth of the supernatural. But there's more to this ghastly case than anyone realizes. In the film's first hour, Florence will solve The Case of the Scared-To-Death Student. But the mystery of the ghost child lingers, compelling her to reckless behavior that pulls her to the darkest corners of the school, her mind, and her past. Along the way, Florence confronts not only the supernatural, and her own fears, but also a line of men who scoff at the novelty of an opinionated woman. 

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Nearly every man at the school doubts or derides her — the pompous headmaster, a snarling teacher, even the grousing groundskeeper. They snicker over her ghost-hunting equipment, bark at her assertions, and practically spit when she barks right back. Her only allies are Robert and an elderly maid named Maud (Imelda Staunton), who seems especially tickled by the spirit Florence has brought to the school. The focus of the film is its ghost story, but low-boiling behind is a crisp criticism of this patriarchy that favors cruel tactics of school discipline, brandishes a violent disrespect for women, and created a war that rattled the world with carnage. Nevertheless, Florence persists. 

Beyond its nail-biting mystery and feminist themes, The Awakening is deliciously frightening. Shot in cool tones, there's a sense of dread that permeates every frame. Murphy sparks a burning tension that ignites when Florence realizes this ghost isn't some schoolboy prank. Hall's stirring performance pulls us into Florence's mounting fear. Early on, her strength is apparent through her brilliant smile and brisk manner. She is a warrior in a trumpet skirt. Which makes it all the more unnerving when she's afraid. Once her lip trembles, her eyes go wide, and her breath goes ragged, Florence's fear is contagious, flowing from the film up our spines. The Awakening punctuates these moments with precise jump scares that reveal not only peeks of its twisted-faced ghost but also hints to its origin.

And that's not all. Bundled into this tale of ghosts and female defiance is also one of lust. Though still mourning her fiancé, Florence can't ignore her attraction to Robert. Snarled by guilt, her desire expresses in taboo forms, including a bit of bathtub voyeurism that dares to delve into the Female Gaze and offer up some all-too-rare male nudity. Theirs is a romance marred by pain, yet tinged with hope. Both have lived through bloody times and been deeply scarred by them. But could this haunted couple find happiness yet?

To find out, give yourself over to the dark swoon of The Awakening.

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