**1/2 (out of four)
Last week's “The Apparition” contained an alarming lack of skill. So “The Awakening” represents a certain corrective because it disturbs for reasons other than nearly everyone involved in the horror movie not having a clue what they're doing.
The film opens almost identically to “Red Lights,” as paranormal hoax investigator Florence (Rebecca Hall of “The Town”) observes a seance she easily reveals as a fraud. More of a ghost story-buster than a ghostbuster, she literally has written the book about seeing through the undead. Still, she may not be prepared for what she finds when called to a remote boarding school, where a recently deceased child claimed to have spotted a ghost a few weeks before his death.
Set in 1921 London in the wake of more than a million Brits dying in WWI and from influenza, “The Awakening” offers old-fashioned chilliness that accomplishes what “The Woman in Black” tried and failed to do. Particularly haunting: Imagery found in a dollhouse that eerily mimics reality.
Yet for all his lovely compositions, promising first-time feature director/co-writer Nick Murphy relies on too many predictable attempts at scares and rarely frightens. The developing relationship between Florence and Robert (Dominic West of “300”) also has as much credibility as the story, which stretches to bridge notions of survivor guilt between tragedy in the home and on the battlefield.
Ultimately “The Awakening” serves as the latest reminder of the brilliance of 2007's terrifying “The Orphanage.” That film turned an institution of fear and repressed memories into a fairy tale of nightmarish proportions. For another round of mysterious, blurry photos and creepy children, “The Awakening” at least earns respect instead of causing irritation. That's more than can be said lately for most movies of the sort.
Dammit, England, just looking at you makes me say things like, “of the sort.” Blimey!
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