The 2011 edition of the Mayhem Horror Festival got under way last night with a special preview screening of a new British film, The Awakening. The screening was followed by a Q&A with director and co-screenwriter (with Stephen Volk), Nick Murphy. More on that discussion later, but first the film itself.

The setting is post World War 1 England and our protagonist Florence Cathcart (played by a wonderful Rebecca Hall) is a ghost hunter, or to put it more accurately, a hoax hunter. In the film’s opening scene Florence outs a ‘medium’, the kind who make money off deluded and fragile people believing it’s possible to talk to their deceased nearest and dearest – Derek Acorah must be fuming at not being cast. Right from the start we sense that all is not well in Florence’s psyche and that she’s perhaps in this trade for reasons other than financial. Then Dominic West (The Wire, 300) enters as a boarding school teacher who requests Florence come to his school to investigate the mysterious, ghostly circumstances surrounding the recent death of a pupil. The school of course is suitably spooky, and from there on in we’re treated to a fresh and nerve-jangling interpretation of the haunted house movie.

The film’s ace in the hole is its original take on the reasoning for why ghosts might exist in the first place. Essentially the film asks us, why do people see ghosts? Ghosts in this sense not necessarily just referring to a ghoulish apparition. In my mind this is much more exciting than asking, hmm I wonder when the next low humming followed by a loud bang will happen? CoughParanormalActivitycough. As a result, The Awakening offers a lot more than other modern horror films do in terms of interesting emotional subtext. Almost all the characters back stories are absolutely essential to the plot, therefore we care for them which in turn makes any apparent jeopardy ten times more scary than your typical teenage horror fodder being chased through a forest by a guy in a hockey mask. But despite leaning almost more towards period drama than traditional horror, the film is not without its genre elements. Nick Murphy noted in the post-film discussion that if you make a comedy or a horror there are always “tropes and clichés” which audiences will recognise. Now despite the fact Murphy admitted to not actively attempting to reference other films in The Awakening (an admission prompted by a question from this intrepid reporter, athankyou), the similarities with other horrors were often too big to ignore. The Shining is partly evident if only because of the grandness and haunting of the building in question; if you’ve seen The Orphanage you’ll notice similarities in motifs as well as the general atmosphere during tense scenes in dark corridors; and finally aspects of another period British ghost story, The Others, are evident since the supposed ghost in The Awakening is that of a young boy. There is also in fact one more undeniably striking similarity with another famous horror, although if I were to mention it the big twist would be spoilt. So when you see The Awakening, if you don’t know which film I’m talking about, then I’m afraid you’re just not trying hard enough.

Overall I really enjoyed the film, the performances were great with Imelda Staunton the standout as the school’s matron, and the scares were consistently effective. However I did feel they were nothing more than effective, yes they made me and others jump, but so would anyone after a long silence interrupted by a loud jolt of sound; seasoned horror fans will easily predict when the scares are coming. Also the densely layered screenplay is to some extent a double-edged sword, as there seems to be maybe one or two unnecessary subplots that either don’t lead anywhere or seem superfluous to the film’s otherwise solid central storyline. But all in all this a very good and refreshing take on the gothic ghost story.

As mentioned above the screening was followed by an informative Q&A with the director, first time feature filmmaker Nick Murphy, whose previous work includes the superb Iraq War drama Occupation. Probably the most interesting point Murphy made was of how he and his collaborators really strived to mesh together two different elements – those being the unavoidable expectations and genre clichés of horror, then the desire to infuse those with an original and interesting concept – and then find balance between them in order to achieve a whole that was both new and unique but that also sat comfortably within the context of it’s genre.

Mayhem promises more equally enlightening discussions with filmmakers along with more preview screenings, retrospectives and special events, all of which runs until Halloween night, Monday 31st October. For all information please visit:

http://www.broadway.org.uk/pages/mayhem_horror_festival

James McAndrew

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