Horror’s golden age in 1931-19461 begat Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman (werewolf).The boom of the 70s-80s birthed Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers. 21st century horror has witnessed torture porn and this current fad of found footage. It is yet to create an icon2.
2 There is an argument for Jigsaw but I contest he is not iconic. The ‘bad’ with the best potential is Sam from Trick ‘r Treat 2009 but until there’s a sequel his status will always remain ‘potential’.
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The ghost story is a subgenre immune to fads. This is because it is beyond cinema. Ghosts are conspicuous in every culture in the world. Every culture in the world has its own ghost story to tell. Ghosts don’t die.
The ghost story is a subgenre by default but a genre by definition. It comprises romance (Ghost 1990), comedy (Heart Condition 1990) and kiddie flicks (Casper 1995) but despite its scope it is best told as horror. It is best told in J-Horror (Ringu 1998), in Spanish (The Orphanage 2007) and in ye olde English country manor.
The ‘haunted house’ is located worldwide3 but it is different in England. It could be because of the accent. Many people die in their beds but no one points to a 50 year old tower block as being full of (formerly unemployed) ghosts. A ghostly location – at least in the movies – is more secluded. It is more romantic.
The powers-that-be in Britain like to project this country to the rest of the world – especially America – as a ‘tally-ho old chap’ bunch of better-than-thous. This is an image most Brits find laughable. In order to hoodwink Johnny Foreigner the powers use film (& television4) propaganda to hark back to the past.
It is a specific past before the Windrush5 and when the working classes knew their place. It is a time of empire when the rich could still afford the upkeep of their country estates through crimes against humanity. It is turn of the 20th century to the end of the Second World War. It is a time of modernity; there are cigarette holders and telegrams and motor cars. It is the class system’s last hurrah.
Ye olde English country manor is a small section of the haunted house subgenre. It is costume drama with ghosts and posh accents. Costume dramas in and of themselves are a huge market. Downtown Abbey is Amazon’s top selling DVD box set of all time6. With the success of The Woman in Black 2012 there will be more of these films. It could become a 21st century fad.
Ghosts don’t die. They live in a fantasy era.
|Rebecca Hall: rather RADA|
The Awakening 2012 opens with a curtain raiser to introduce lead character Florence Cathcart played by Rebecca Hall. The story is set at the end of The Great War where Cathcart is famous as a ghostbuster. This sceptic delights in exposing fraudulent séances wherein lies the problem. Cathcart has the arrogance of a 21st century construct channelled back in time by the screenwriters. Before the opening sequence is over she gets to play the bitch card: “Just because I’m a woman... (insert whine here)”
The Haunted House film is sometimes part of the woman-in-peril subgenre (The Others, The Innocents). This requires a sense of vulnerability from the lead character even when the role is played by a man (The Woman in Black, The Skeptic 2009). Florence Cathcart displays little if any vulnerability because the character is politically correct to the point she stops a school master from administering corporal punishment.
The Awakening takes place in a boarding school for boys. In order to keep production costs low the students migrate home for the holidays. The only people left are a solitary boy and a skeleton staff. Dominic West plays the love interest and nothing more. Imelda Staunton is matron as cipher. There’s a stock working class caretaker who would have been played by a black man had this been set in America. There isn’t a single character written with organic truth.
The story these characters populate is even worse. It is contrived, clichéd and coy. Nothing about this film has the strength of storytelling although it does look great. The performances are involving. The actors are engaging. The net result is akin to a royalist getting dressed up to watch the royal wedding in their sitting room. By the dénouement all coherence is lost.
The Awakening is a harbinger for the quality of films to come. The old English haunted house is a scant subgenre that used to deliver but like everything else in this country the glory is in the past.
The Awakening is available on DVD in the UK. US release dates to be announced.
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