Quite by accident, today’s double feature happens to consist of two films from the UK: the 2011 classically-structured English mystery/ghost story The Awakening, and the more modern-expressionist Irish murder-demon tale from 2014, The Canal. While neither of them was particularly original plot-wise, there was a great deal to enjoy in both films, and I have few qualms about recommending them to interested parties, as long as you’re not expecting to get blown away. Keep in mind that both have pretty significant plot twists that will be spoiled here, so read no further if you haven’t seen them. This is your final warning!
First up, The Awakening is the kind of movie that will probably appeal to fans of neo-gothic ghost stories like The Others, The Woman In Black, The Devil’s Backbone, and The Orphanage (of which I am definitely one), with all the standard ingredients: creaky old mansions, possible spirit kids, a plucky heroine, a kindly matron, a murder mystery, lots of shifty characters, and a repressed and horrific past. There are two really outstanding things about this film, one of which is the gorgeous cinematography, painting everything in hues of blue and gray and setting a bleak and eerie mood with long shots of empty hallways, vast green lawns, and shadowed rooms.
The other outstanding thing is the performance of lead Rebecca Hall (who I also enjoyed in her roles in The Prestige, Frost/Nixon, and The Night House), who is electrifying to watch, playing a character who is tough as nails and in complete control of her emotions, all the while seething underneath with a naked fragility that she is loath to show to anyone.
That said, the movie also has some significant problems, which I will get to in a bit.
The Awakening is set in 1921, and Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense spiritualist debunker in the Houdini vein. She has written a well-regarded book on exposing fraudulent mediums, called Seeing Through Ghosts, and has become somewhat famous (as well as reviled by the spiritualist community) for her work with the police in raiding fake séances (as if there are any other kind, but I digress). In fact, the first sequence of the film shows us Florence at work, busting up a deliciously creepy séance with ruthless efficiency, showing everyone the wires and parlor tricks used to make the attendees believe they are talking to their loved ones. Predictably, the people at the séance get righteously pissed off at Florence for exposing the fraud, instead of at the fake mediums who are taking their money and fooling them into thinking they‘re communicating with dead people. Typical.
It also comes to light that Florence has lost her lover in the war, and that much like Houdini and his mother, Florence maintains her staunch atheism and disbelief in the afterlife both because she feels that fake mediums are taking grieving people like her to the cleaners for a false promise of communication, but also because she still holds out a tiny spark of childish hope that one of these mediums will actually be real and will be able to contact her lost beloved, so that she can apologize for the wrong she did him just before his death.
A short time after the séance raid, Florence is approached by Robert Mallory, who teaches Latin at a boys’ boarding school called Rookford. He explains to Florence that the school is haunted by a boy who might have been murdered there at some point in the past, and that one of the students has recently died, apparently after being frightened to death by the ghost. At first Florence brushes him off, saying she’s too busy and that the “proof” of the haunting he’s brought looks like bullshit, but since there would be no movie if she didn’t go, she eventually agrees to travel to the school and investigate.
Once she gets to Rookford, she meets matron Maud (Imelda Staunton, who I absolutely loved in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake), who is almost creepily interested in her and effusively praises her book (which she keeps on the shelf right next to the Bible), saying that she doesn’t believe in any of this haunting nonsense either and that she hopes that Florence will be able to get everyone‘s heads on straight. She also meets a few of the other boys, including the angel-faced Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, best known from Game of Thrones), some of the other teachers, like the anger-issue-ridden Malcolm McNair (Shaun Dooley), as well as the requisite sketchy groundskeeper Edward Judd (Joseph Mawle).
One aspect of the film I thought was rather nicely done was the undercurrent of war and the influenza outbreak that was going on in England at the time. At the school, everyone seems either sick or wounded in some way, haunted by the horrors going on around them, and groundskeeper Judd is reviled by all the other teachers because he faked an injury to get out of service. An understated touch, but a welcome one that helps place the story in the context of its times.
Florence wastes little time in setting up all the latest scientific equipment and using her considerable intellect and knowledge of the tricks of the trade to get to the bottom of the mystery. And here’s where I thought the movie was at its best, because Florence is able to easily discover that the “ghost” the dead boy saw was in fact one of the other students playing a prank, and that the deceased child actually died from an asthma attack after Malcolm McNair punished him for his fear by locking him outside, trying to “toughen him up.” When Florence exposes the truth, Malcolm tearfully apologizes, claiming that he was only so harsh on the boys because he was trying to make them tougher than the current generation, since, having seen war, he would know that they would have to be. The other teachers are sympathetic, but Malcolm still gets fired, and rightfully so.
So, problem solved, right? No ghost, no mysterious death. Not so fast. At this point there was still a great deal of the movie to go, so I figured that even though Florence had presumably found out that the ghost was fake, that there would actually be a real one lurking in there somewhere that would melt the black, unfeeling heart of the skeptic. I have to admit, this common plot device always disappoints me somewhat, because it seems as though skeptics are invariably portrayed in horror movies as wrong and damaged in some way, and this film was no exception. While I know that we couldn’t have horror stories without writing about the supernatural, and while I’ve always been a big fan of supernatural-based horror tales myself, I’m always kind of annoyed by the lazy “hardline asshole skeptic finds out there really ARE ghosts, and becomes a better person” trope. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but I just found it an obvious “twist,” and somewhat jarring within the context of the film.
After the fake ghost is unmasked, the boys all leave the school for the Christmas holiday, save for Tom, who has to stay behind because his parents are ostensibly in India. Although Florence initially plans to leave, she ends up seeing something in the school that leads her to believe that the place really is haunted, and she is determined to stay there until she finds out what it is. Another thing keeping her at the school is her budding romance with Robert Malloy, and her connection to the lonely little Tom, who adores her and seems to know a lot about her, for reasons which will become clear later.
And right here is where most of the major problems with the movie begin. Florence, presented in the film as a thoroughly modern, rational woman, begins to essentially have a nervous breakdown, chasing after ghosts, crying uncontrollably, seeing strange visions, even attempting suicide by throwing herself into the lake and subsequently throwing herself at Robert Malloy. It’s sort of a bizarre character shift, and while it wasn’t too egregious while I was watching it, when I thought about it later on, it bothered me a lot more.
There is also a minor subplot with groundskeeper Judd, who attacks and attempts to rape Florence in the woods, before being frightened by the ghost, after which Florence kills him in self-defense and Robert covers it up. I’m not really sure why this subplot is here, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with the main story and doesn’t serve any purpose other than showing the audience that all the other war-hero characters were correct in assuming that the malingering Judd was kind of a scumbag.
And the ultimate resolution of the mystery, which I admit came as something of a surprise, was also unnecessarily convoluted and admittedly a tad confusing. It turned out that twenty years ago, when the school was a private residence, Florence had lived there with her parents, her nanny, and her nanny’s son. Florence’s father had flipped out one day, killed her mother in front of her, and then came after her with a shotgun. Florence hid from him in a hole behind the wall, along with her friend Tom (yep), the nanny’s son. Florence’s father shot through the wall, aiming for Florence, but killed Tom instead, then shot himself when he saw what he’d done.
So basically, Tom has been the terrifying “ghost with the twisted face” all along (which was actually a pretty creepy and arresting visual, though I thought the explanation that most of the time he could control the twisty-faced thing and look like a normal kid was kind of lame), and it turns out that Maud is his mother, as well as Florence’s erstwhile nanny. That’s why Maud and Florence are the only ones who can see Tom (though this isn’t clear until you watch it a second time, just like The Sixth Sense), and that’s why Maud was acting so strangely at first, because she was the one who convinced Robert to summon Florence there; she was looking to see if Florence remembered her or remembered anything about what had happened. So the whole point of Florence being at the school was not so much to debunk the ghost, but to remember and come to terms with the horrible past she had blocked out.
The ending also got a little weird, as Maud decides that she and Florence should look after Tom forever because he’s lonely and he‘s starting to appear to more of the boys at the school, which frightens them. So Maud poisons herself and attempts to poison Florence, though it appears that Tom intervenes and gives her an ipecac. While some viewers thought that Florence really did die and that it was her ghost we saw at the end leaving the school, I’m pretty sure she actually did live, though it could be read either way because of the cryptic way the scenes and the dialogue are shot.
As I said, there were some rather odd tonal shifts and bizarre character 180s going on, the repressed memory angle was way too complicated and silly to be believable, and I thought there were some unnecessary plot threads that could have been eliminated; but all in all, it was a rather enjoyable mystery that looked great and had some interesting twists, even though some of them were a little WTF. If you have a hankering for an old-school Victorian-style ghost story with some Houdini-type scientific skepticism threaded in, and if you can live with some clumsy plot developments that don’t always work, then you may find your fix somewhat sated here.
The second film in our UK double feature is 2014’s The Canal, written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh. Though this one had far fewer plot issues than The Awakening and hence was probably the better film overall, I think I ended up liking it about the same, just because it suffered a tad from an unoriginal storyline and had a more modern, jump-scare-heavy aesthetic. That said, though, it did have a slightly surreal feel to it which I appreciated, some decent scares and disturbing imagery, and at times it reminded me a bit of Candyman, which is always a good thing.
We begin the tale as main protagonist David (Rupert Evans) moves into an old house in Dublin with his pregnant wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra). Not much happens at first to suggest that anything is amiss, but then we skip ahead five years. David and Alice’s son Billy (Calum Heath) sometimes complains about monsters in the house, as five-year-olds are wont to do. In addition, the love appears to have gone out of David and Alice’s marriage, as he begins to suspect that she is having an affair with one of her clients.
Worse yet, during the course of his job as a film archivist for the National Archives, he is sent a series of police films from 1902, which show the aftermath of a grisly murder that took place in the very house he lives in with his family. The crime spree involved a man who had brutally butchered his two-timing wife and their two children, then later beheaded their nanny before throwing her body into the canal that still runs alongside the street the house is located on.
Soon enough, David becomes obsessed with these films and begins to investigate other murders that have taken place around the canal, and it’s implied that he is seeing parallels between the family dynamic at work in the 1902 murders and what’s taking place in his own life (since David and Alice also employ a nanny, by the name of Sophie, played by Kelly Byrne). Shortly afterward, he obtains definitive proof of his wife’s dalliances when he follows her one night when she is supposed to be “working late” and sees her banging her hunky work colleague Alex (Carl Shaaban).
In fact, on the night he sees the two of them together, he has flashes of the 1902 murder films, and picks up a hammer as if he is going to revisit the past with extreme prejudice. But then he thinks better of it and leaves without the lovers seeing him. On his walk back home, he throws the hammer into the canal, and then starts feeling sick about what he almost did. He enters a nearby Trainspotting-level public bathroom, where he vomits all over the place, but also has disturbing visions of someone standing outside the stall and a creepy man whispering something unintelligible into his ear. As he staggers out of the bathroom, he sees what he thinks is his wife struggling with a dark figure on the banks of the canal, and then falling in, screaming. Thinking he is imagining it, he heads back home.
But wouldn’t you know it, his wife has not come home by morning, and after dropping Billy off at school, he goes to the police to report her missing. He doesn’t tell the police that he knows about her affair, and he doesn’t tell them that he thought he saw her fighting with a man by the canal, since he believes (probably with some justification) that the cops will think he killed her if they find out he was following her and actually did momentarily consider busting in her head with a hammer.
Lead detective McNamara (a wonderful Steve Oram) is still intensely suspicious, since, as he tells David, when wives go missing, it’s ALWAYS the husband. He tries to get David to confess by sticking the knife in about the affair, which apparently everyone knew about but David. David is, however, adamant that he loved his wife and wouldn’t hurt her. And because of David’s visions, the audience is actually not sure either whether he really did kill his wife and then sort of blocked it out by imagining all this trippy stuff with the creepy dudes in the disgusting toilet.
Subsequently, Alice’s body is found in the canal, but in a surprising twist, the coroner finds no evidence that she was murdered, and rules that she was probably walking home, broke her heel, fell into the canal, and drowned. David is heartbroken, but also somewhat relieved, though his grief is tempered somewhat by the revelation that Alice was pregnant with Alex’s child and that she had been planning on leaving David when she died.
There is a funeral, and David hires Sophie on to stay full time to help take care of Billy, but Detective McNamara is still convinced that David is the killer, and his suspicions prompt him to have David watched, as well as contact child services to see about having Billy taken away from him.
It is at this point that the real mindfuck of the movie begins, because although it would seem that David has been exonerated of his wife’s allegedly accidental death, he starts to become convinced that the man who murdered his family back in 1902 is still in the house, or that there is some evil force operating in the house that makes its residents go murderously insane.
Propping up this belief is the sighting of the man (and Alice) at varying times in the house, as well as on the films he makes around the house and near the canal in order to catch the “ghost.” He attempts to rally his work friend Claire and the nanny Sophie to his cause, trying desperately to convince them that not only is there an evil spirit in his house, but that it killed his wife and is going to kill Billy and Sophie next. Sophie and Claire, however, simply think that the grief over his wife’s death has sent him off the deep end, and urge him to get help, which he refuses. It is never really made clear whether the women can see the “ghosts” that occasionally turn up on his films, making the suspense over David‘s supposedly deteriorating mental state all the more compelling. There also remains the intriguing possibility that Alice’s death was simply an accident, and David is blowing it into this batshit demon scenario in order to assuage his guilt about his murderous thoughts.
Meanwhile, police recover the hammer that David threw into the canal on the night of Alice’s death, and since David’s fingerprints are on it, McNamara’s suspicions are reignited. David finally admits to the police that he had known about the affair and that he had seen Alice and Alex together that night, but insists that the ghost in the house is responsible for Alice’s death, not him. Not surprisingly, the police are less than impressed by this outlandish story.
The real strength of the film is that the viewer never really does figure out whether David actually killed his wife (and later Claire) and is so crazy he’s attributing it to spirits, or whether the spirits are real and are making him murder people, or whether the spirits are the ones doing it and then are making him think that it was him. Late in the film, David finds a series of creepy old photographs behind a wall that imply that the former residents of the house were Satanists who sacrificed babies and threw them into the canal, so it would seem that there was some evil jiggery-pokery going on in the place, but then near the end of the film, as David is trying to escape from police with Billy in tow, he is shown visions of himself drowning his wife in the canal and strangling Claire, so we don’t really know if this is actually what happened, or if these visions were shown to him by the evil ghosts.
The ending of this was actually rather dark, which surprised and somewhat delighted me, in a grim way. David dies by drowning in the canal, though Billy is pulled out by Detective McNamara. You’d think that would be the wrapped-up, somewhat happy ending, but there’s a nasty little coda: Billy is back at the house with his grandmother, and he goes into his room to retrieve a few of his toys, since Grandma is selling the house and they are moving away. While inside alone, Billy sees David’s eye peering at him through a crack in the wall, and David tells the child that he is in the house with Mommy, and that Billy can stay with them forever if he wants to. Cut to a solemn little Billy emerging from the house and getting into the car with his grandmother, after which he jumps out of the car while it’s moving and gets crushed under the wheels. The last shot is the real estate agent being startled by Billy’s ghost as it closes the door of an upstairs bedroom.
I’m guessing that this final little twist suggests that the evil ghost (or force or demon or whatever) was manipulating the perceptions of everyone who lived there. So Billy didn’t really see his dad in the wall; that was just the demon persuading him to join the party, as it were. At least that was how I interpreted it.
As I said, this film reminded me pleasingly of Candyman, what with a desperate and sympathetic protagonist trying to convince a skeptical world that a supernatural force was responsible for murders which looked very much like he had committed. The acting was great, the story interesting if nothing new, the cinematography containing nicely surrealistic flourishes. The ghost sightings were also effectively creepy, especially the ones that appeared on old-timey looking film. Another well-above-average recent horror entry in this double-feature series, and one I’d definitely recommend.
Well, that’s all for now, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.