Insert “The Time Warp” joke here: A critical review of “When We First Met” (2018)

I wasn’t even going to watch this movie, let along review it. “When We First Met” is a romantic comedy, and I am someone who hates humanity, so I do not seem to be the appropriate person to review this film. And yet, we did just knock out two Netflix original distributions in so many weeks, and this does involve time travel, so I guess it sort of counts as a sci fi. Let’s go for a trifecta.

Noah (Adam DeVine) has been in the friend zone for the past three years, and now Avery (Alexandra Daddario), his objet d’amor, is getting married. Consoling himself with far too much booze for a man of his constitution, Noah climbs into a (presumably) magical photo booth, which transports him back to the night he met Avery. He now has the opportunity to live that night over and over, until he can finally end up with Avery, a task easier said than done.

“When We First Met” didn’t set out to be a great movie, but it did set out to be a movie, and it succeeds at that. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot to it. The direction, by Ari Sandel, whose greatest claim to fame to date has been high school something-or-other “The DUFF,” never really rises above an MTV level of competence.

That leaves us with the script, by John Whittington, who was one of the five people worked on “The LEGO Batman Movie” screenplay and one of six people who worked on “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” It’s not that funny. There are a few sex jokes, and a few “fish out of temporal water” jokes, but the film never seems comfortable settling into any kind of comedic groove. It’s even worse when it attempts philosophizing on romantic topics. Your reading of the ending as either sweet or bittersweet depends on how you analyze the questions the film clumsily raises, and the script wisely leaves any genuine interpretation out of the hands of any of the characters on screen.

So that that leaves us with the acting, which is not that great either. At least Daddario (of “San Andreas” and, more importantly, the first season of “True Detective” and the hotel season of “American Horror Story”) and DeVine (of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” and, to his credit, “The Final Girls”) look like they’re having fun. They chew the scenery sometimes in their depiction of always-just-out-of-sync lovers, but it’s something to grab onto.

There might not be anything truly wrong with “When We First Met,” but there’s nothing that really makes it stand out either. The concept is amusing, but it’s hardly new. Time has toyed with lovers in everything from “Love in the Time of Cholera” to “13 Going on 30.” And is it just me, or is that photo booth basically just the fortune telling machine from “Big”? Even its title sounds familiar; I keep getting it mixed up with Lord Huron’s weepy, indie folk ballad “The Night We Met.”

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting notion: Being a time traveler, like being in love, can wear you out. I just hope a more thoughtful film has thought of it too.

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Lost in the woods (again): A critical review of “The Ritual” (2018)

Well lookee here. Netflix dumped not one but two horrifying flicks on us humble audiences this month. We did “Cloverfield Paradox” last week, so why not join some of our distinguished colleagues and try to review “The Ritual” this week? It’s shocking that we’re actually watching another new release instead of something old but not old enough to be cool yet. It’s almost like we’re competent or something.

Well, with that descriptive intro, here’s the review.

Based on a novel that I’ve never read, “The Ritual” starts like a midlife dramedy, with a group of overgrown lads in a pub, planning their next vacation and struggling with the gap between bachelorhood and married life that widens as one slows down. Then one of them gets himself killed in a botched liquor store holdup (he was an innocent bystander, not a holder-upper). A few months later, his surviving friends are taking a hiking trip in Sweden where they hold an impromptu memorial. Things start to get weird on their way back, where they take a shortcut through a forest that throws off their sense of time and space, not to mention the fact that something in there seems to be following them. Surprisingly enough, after a stay in an abandoned house where each man is tortured by nightmares, things don’t get better…

For the most part, “The Ritual” is a solid blend of psychological and traditional horror. The director is horror vet David Bruckner, who’s into the co-directing thing (he was featured in “V/H/S,” which I saw and kind of remember, as well as 2007 “The Signal,” which I forgot I saw but never forgot I really liked). Either way, it’s unsurprising that “The Ritual” looks and feels good. It’s sort of the horror version of the John Ford rule: If you point a camera in some well lit rainy woods, and you don’t fall over drunk while holding the camera, you’re bound to make some atmospheric pictures (the cinematography was done by Andrew Shulkind, who has worked with Bruckner before, and the editing was Mark Towns, who hasn’t). Bruckner does more than that, also using the forest to build tension, add aggression and drive the plot in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I will also say this. For the most part, Bruckner knows when to keep the monster out of sight, which is a smart tactic, but it’s one that can lead to disappointment when the creature finally makes an appearance. However, when he does decide to show the creature…well, let’s say he does OK. Even those who have been less than satisfied with the movie seem satisfied with its creature.

The humans aren’t so bad themselves. A small, tight cast (it’s basically a four man play) ensures that we get to know our characters pretty well in an organic way. They feel real; each actor plays his part like someone you’d meet at the bar, whether they’re bragging drunkenly in the middle of the room or checking their watch in a dark corner. Admittedly, their individual psychologies are not examined in depth, but the connections between their dreams, desires and individual guilty consciences are all brought up. The movie might not be intellectual, but it is clever. Although Lord but those boys do swear a lot.

One complaint is that the film doesn’t do anything new. But is “The Ritual” genuinely unoriginal? Well, yes. Completely. It’s part “Blair Witch Project,” part Algernon Blackwood (please tell me you’ve read “The Willows”), part every crappy camping trip you ever shivered your way through as a kid. However, originality, like depth, is a tall order. A more pressing issue is the ending, which is far too fast. I’m not saying it lack resolution. It just sort of…stops. After so much pleasant–from a horror perspective–imagery, it can be quite disappointing to have such an unimaginative conclusion. Still, genre fans should be willing to forgive less than a minute of disappointment for 90 minutes of quality atmosphere. “The Ritual” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: for the four men on screen, a really poorly planned vacation.

Let’s do the twist again: A critical review of “The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018)

One problem with modern media, I think we can all agree, is franchise-syndrome. Cable and broadcast series stay around longer than their plotlines will allow, and film series reboot rather than die with honor. One interesting way of countering that has been a subtle return of anthologies, most notably with TV series like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story.” Cinematically speaking, there are the Cloverfield films, which are typically quirky thrillers that get the J. J. Abrams touch: plots that are guarded like jealous lovers and doled out slowly, both in the advertising and the films themselves. Which explains why “The Cloverfield Paradox” is both a bit labyrinthine in its narrative construction and its Neflix release was only officially announced in a Super Bowl commercial. For us here at Idols and Realities, that also means we get to review something new for a change.

After a few rounds of quick exposition–I counted three–we join a cast of international science dudes onboard the space station Cloverfield. Seems they’re trying to kick-start an eternal energy machine to stop people on earth from fighting over oil reserves. After a couple years of misfiring, the machine finally works, but in doing so it breaks and it rips a hole in spacetime. Cut off from the Earth, the crew must try to work together as tensions mount and their minds and bodies are fractured by the chaotic effects of a splintering reality.

If “Paradox” sounds a little familiar, that’s perhaps because it enters that long lineage of films that can be classified as “haunted house in space,” that is, space opera by way of psychological horror occasionally kissing cousin to cosmic horror, as in “Alien” and “Event Horizon,” but sometimes played a little straighter, as in “Pandorum.” If you’ve seen any of those films, just imagine them slightly less coherent, exciting and interesting, and you have “Paradox.”

“Paradox” doesn’t go far to explain its own paradoxes–it’s a bad sign when “Event Horizon” is using sounder science than your film. Presumably some stuff gets jumbled when dimensions collide, which explains the quirky placement of certain objects, but it doesn’t explain why some members of the crew are fine and others get the space crazies. No, there are too many unanswered questions for the film to click as a mind screw. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not weird enough. On the other hand, maybe the film wanted to do something more philosophical, perhaps something about ethics. But that kind of question, while it could be posed, it not. Maybe it was in an earlier version of the script–there are some religious hints thrown around at the beginning of the movie, but they’re dropped pretty quick.

Furthermore, the movie doesn’t get particularly psychological, if only because it would be hard to pull off when all your characters are about as thin as construction paper. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does her best with the central, and therefore most complex, character of the film, but she can only so much. I like Elizabeth Debicki as an icy space lady, but that might just be because her haircut reminds me of David Bowie. The best of the bunch is probably Chris O’Dowd, who gets all the funniest lines of dialogue, which is a good idea because he’s Chris O’Dowd. So the movie at least does that right.

Perhaps it lacks an experienced hand at the wheel. Director Julius Onah has years of producing credits, but only one thriller to his name. What the film doesn’t get right or wrong, it simply does OK. The look never rises above handsome, but it never really sinks to genuinely ugly, preferring to stay in a safe, middling middle. Graphics are fine. Special effects are fine. Soundtrack is unmemorable, so it was probably fine. But fine don’t quite cut it.

The Cloverfield “franchise” has always taken its B-movie subjects somewhat seriously, resulting in either the wicked sense of humor of the first film or the genuine thrills of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” “Paradox” still maintains its predecessors seriousness, but it can’t live up in the other ways. And that ending. Perhaps it’s trying too hard. There are plenty of standard Cloverfield tropes in the plot: not-everything-is-what-it-seems, a decent dose of disaster and conspiracy, and there’s even a trace of that sense of humor. But there are no real thrills, too many questions left answered and all the wrong ones raised to begin with.

The problem is obvious, of course. “Cloverfield” had actress Lizzy Caplan; “Lane” had Mary Elizabeth Winstead–the film was lacking a distant, smoky brunette. I’m sure that would have fixed everything.

You can’t make this stuff up: A critical review of “Alan Wake” (2010)

In a move that was not necessarily the wisest, given rumors of a lack of financial stability, I joined Gamestop’s rewards program. The good news is that all the cheap, used games are even cheaper for the next year. The bad news is that I will feel compelled to purchase them to “make up” the cost of the program’s membership. Well, at least there should be some good reviews in it. After all, it’s 2018, the future and whatnot. Video games is what it’s all about. Nobody wants to read any more. Which is why the first thing I’m reviewing is a game in which you step into the shoes of a novelist.

“Alan Wake” opens with the titular writer being pursued in a dark forest by an even darker presence. This is revealed to be naught more than a nightmare, but Wake wakes (haw) up to an even greater nightmare. He’s going on vacation to Bright Falls, a backwater town in Washington state with his wife, Alice. After meeting some of the quirkier residents, Alice disappears, along with their isolated island getaway. It seems no one can remember their vacation house ever existed, although the local police remember Alice, and Wake himself becomes a suspect. Wake takes the investigation into his own hands, running up against an ancient evil that is slowly infecting the entire area with a gathering darkness.

“Alan Wake” is a game I’d been meaning to play for awhile. The main character, atmosphere and setting, even the soundtrack, give it the feeling of a “Twin Peaks” fan fiction written by Stephen King. A little ambitious, one might think, which is part of why “Alan Wake” is kind of disappointing. Not because it’s bad–it’s perfectly serviceable–but because it’s so just OK. Many of my issues with the gameplay and the story are eerily mirrored by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, so I’ll just leave this link to his video review here. That about sums it up, which is not difficult to do since the gameplay is so repetitive. Walk through the spooky forest for the umpteenth time, shine light here, shoot at that, climb to the top of this to advance to the next level, rinse and repeat.

 

The game is great at building atmosphere, but then it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Indeed, “Wake” does atmosphere very nicely. There are some interesting affectations, like a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show that plays in the game’s background and the stray novel pages you collect that tease the story along; the song selection is interesting and engaging; and the game has the spooky forest vibe completely nailed down. That’s both a blessing and a curse, because the game thinks of every excuse imaginable to get you into the woods in the middle of the night. You would think that Wake himself would eventually figure out that’s not the best idea, if only because he writes thrillers for a living.

Wake himself is an oddly unbalanced character. He shrugs off pickaxe blows from undead assailants with ease, and he’s handy with multiple firearms, which begs the question: Isn’t Wake is an alcoholic writer? How did he get so good at being so badass? Aside from creating a narrative quirk, there’s also a gameplay problem. Perhaps I didn’t have it on the right difficulty setting, but I never felt threatened. The game lurched between kind of tricky and far too easy. Accordingly, the best level was one in which Wake is on the run from police, weapon-less and dodging enemies rather than fighting them. Coupled with the spooky forest setting, I finally felt the tension.

Wake’s companions are a bit uneven themselves. Publisher and best pal Barry Wheeler looks and speaks like action sidekicks who have been helping heroes investigate haunted houses since the 1930s. Two characters who promised to be the most interesting–art therapist Emil Hartman and unstable FBI Agent Nightingale–are given all the backstory of a shallow puddle. And Wake’s wife has one facial expression: scary. But what if this was all the point?

The existential question is this: Is “Alan Wake” a sloppy game or is it a stealthily meta game? I started to suspect that the events I was playing through were actually happening on the pages of a book, perhaps written by the game’s mythical Thomas Zane. It might explain why Wake himself comes across as such an action hero–seriously, is the game commentary on the hubris of writers always making the heroes of their stories be writers?–and why his friends have such overly written dialogue, as well as those “collect ’em all” novel pages. It’s like they’re all living in a pulp thriller. Interesting? Perhaps. Intentional? I don’t know. There are further Alan Wake installments–but not the promised sequel–and I imagine they might confirm or deny, or at least expand upon, this theory. A more important question, unfortunately, is whether I’d want to play them. The answer is maybe, but I’d need at least one level that wasn’t just set in a spooky forest.

What are we watching?: A critical review of “The Watcher in the Woods” (1981)

So another Halloween has come and gone, although it’s left us with a gift. No, not the hangover, the cavities or the outfit we can only wear again in a year–is it harder to reuse costumes with social media nowadays? I wouldn’t know. But I’m talking about the scary movies that are still buzzing around. Lifetime left us with an interesting one. Melissa Joan Hart–yet, that Melissa Joan Hart–directed a film called “The Watcher in the Woods,”
based on a book of the same name. But that’s not the subject of this review. No, instead we’ve got “Watcher in the Woods” from some 35 years ago or so, an attempt by Disney to break out of its mouse-eared image. How successful was it? That’s the matter of some debate.

Also, there’s some eclipse stuff in here too–I was trying to tie this one in with the eclipse movies from earlier. Of course, we all saw how that worked out. All I got was a late fee at the library.

Initially at least, it does look like we are viewing a darker, edgier Disney. The opening sequence contains a lot of moody photography and spooky trees, which effectively straddle the line between Disney’s daytime and horror’s night. Of course, then the credits fade. The Curtis family, a load of Americans, is house hunting in England, and they’ve stumbled upon an antique mansion owned by the enigmatic Mrs. Aylwood (the legendary Bette Davis), who has forsaken the main house for the guest quarters since her daughter disappeared a few decades ago during an eclipse.

Naturally, the family’s two daughters start seeing shades of someone or something around the house, the nearby village and, yes, the woods. I don’t want to say too much more, because there’s actually kind of an interesting turn at the end. Suffice to say that things get a little cosmic horror-y before it’s all over, although it’s over in a slightly uncomfortable rush.

The film looks quite good–not just well produced, but artfully shot for a kid’s film and sensitively photographed for a horror film. Well, that part at least makes sense. It was directed by John Hough, who shot, among other things, “Legend of Hell House,” “Twins of Evil” and, um, “Howling 4.” The cinematography was by Hough collaborator Alan Hume; the editing, by film vet Geoffrey Foot, is likewise well done.

There are also, perhaps surprisingly, a few jump scare in the film, and the atmosphere is just fine. It’s at its best when it sticks to mist-soaked trees and dark, cluttered rooms. Not to mention there’s something rather strange about a blindfolded girl (just watch the mirror room scene–it’s more trippy than scary, but it’s still a trip).

Unfortunately, Hough doesn’t do much with his actors. Lynn-Holly Johnson as our heroine Jan, the elder Curtis daughter, starts out fine. But, while she could have ended up increasingly scared or certain of herself or anything, she just ends up sort of being whiny. Davis probably does the best, but she has the most experience and chops, so that’s understandable, although her makeup at that point was starting to resemble Baby Jane a little too well.

This might be more of a script issue (there are three names attached to the screenplay, not counting Florence Engel Randall as the original novelist, which is never a good sign). None of the characters are that engaging. Some of them are downright annoying. Benedict Taylor as local farm boy Mike Fleming probably takes the cake. “Look, this may not be any of my business. Want to talk about it?” he asks Jan rather bluntly. What a nosy parker. And later, he flat out tells his mother at the breakfast table: “There’s something about those woods that’s always bothered you.” This after a girl he’s just met told him his dear old mum might have been involved in a murder. Well, of course the woods have always bothered her. Just look at them. They’re creepy as shit.

The film is also a little less effective when it comes to building up the mystery. There’s a build up to a mystery involving a remote pond that seems to barter in geometric shapes, almost like a bargain version of “The Ring.” Well, not quite. In one scene, the girl when the girl is trying to think of a name for a new puppy, she spells out the word “NERAK” in backwards facing letters on a dirty window. Hmm, I wonder what that could mean? Indeed, for a film that’s less than 90 minutes long, it relies pretty heavily on formula. Someone gets into trouble. Some Bernard Herman rip-off strings, punctuated by a sting of brass, starts playing. A supernatural force seemingly saves said someone. Rinse. Repeat.

Finally, the film is a little lax when it comes to its themes. For example, there was this weird sense of attraction between the elder Curtis daughter and Aylwood, although it’s never fully explored. It’s paternal at best, practical at worst. I was hoping for something a bit more psycho-sexual–disclaimer, my favorite novel is “Turn of the Screw”–but that might have been a bit too much to ask of a Disney movie. Which, of course, might be part of the problem. Not that it’s a Disney movie, but that’s it’s a Disney movie with pretensions to live up to something like “Turn of the Screw.” That’s a tough role to fill. Even Guillermo del Toro had problems with “Crimson Peak”–and he had a superb cast and design.

Of course, Karen–that was the disappearing daughter’s name, in case you hadn’t guessed–was playing a game with a boy and a blindfold the night she vanished. Maybe there’s hope.

By the way, if you do decide to watch the film, please get the DVD. For one thing, a quick glance at the trailers reveals that Disney was indeed trying to do something quite different with this film. More importantly, there are a couple of alternative endings that resemble the used ending to the same extent that bananas resemble road kill. The first one might be the best, as it amps up the cosmic horror by way of H. R. Giger; the second is a little longer, and it smooths out some of the rough edges of the used ending, but it might show just a little too much, which detracts from some of the film’s mystery. And remember, mystery, for better or for worse, is what “Watcher in the Woods” is all about.

Passing strange?: A critical review of “Stranger Things” season one

I don’t understand this recent run on the 80s in all things thriller. There was “It Follows,” with its fresh teens funking it up to a Casio-centric soundtrack, ghosts of neon and capitalistic tech in “Only God Forgives” and “Mr. Robot” respectively–and both in “Blade Runner 2049”–and the Netflix original “Stranger Things,” the latest investigation into the horror genre by the auteur-ish twins the Duffer brothers (brothers Duffer previously wrote for the TV series “Wayward Pines,” which featured an oddly similar theme song to “Stranger”).

I have no particular problem with the 80s–it was the decade of my birth–but I can’t help but wonder why. Is it because of the curious balance of traditionalism and materialism that emerged in the 80s, which is a perfect percolator for horror? Is it that, as the world grows increasingly nationalistic, we want to examine our own most recently nationalistic period with a monstrous eye? Or is it simply because the horror junkie gen-Xers who came of age in the 80s are finally producing films and television, and they’re feeling nostalgic? Probably the last one. Regardless, I can only caution that, while 80s horror gave us John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Iron Maiden album covers and the continuing literary career of Stephen King, it also gave us “Mac and Me,” Boy George’s haircuts and…uh, the continuing literary career of Stephen King. Well, now that the new season of “Stranger Things” has dropped, let’s remind ourselves of the first season., cos I haven’t watched the second one yet.

An enigmatic girl with no hair, known only as Eleven, emerges from a spooky forest just outside of Hawkins, Ind., which is positioned uncomfortably, and rather pointlessly, close to a not very secret military research lab. Who is she? Does she have anything to do with the disappearance of local middle schooler Will? Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), wants to know, as do the boy’s D&D friends. Will their investigation run afoul of the sinister Dr. Brenner (a stoic and somewhat underused Matthew Modine, seemingly channeling Jim Jarmusch in appearance)? Can they enlist the aid of the local police chief (David Harbour), a seriously flawed man who starts each morning with the help of a cigarette, a beer and a some unmarked pills? And what’s up with those portals to a nightmarish mirror dimension that everyone keeps stumbling across and occasionally into?

If it seems like there are lot of questions here, it’s because there are. Some of the issues throughout the first season of “Stranger Things” are never quite explained. I get that this adds to the mystery, but it also leads to confusion when characters exhibit abilities they never exhibited before (I’m thinking in particular of the final episode here, which has some come-out-of-nowhere moments). The series also has a difficult time defending some of its themes. For example, it’s bad that Eleven is a weapon, until the kids point out that she’s a weapon, then it’s OK to use her as a weapon. Perhaps the second season will tidy things up.

But big themes are not this show’s game. It has one goal: evoke an era. “Stranger” is a paradox because it acts like it’s original while acknowledging that it’s not. At least, it behaves like it’s original, with its occasionally stylish production design and clever affectations (its now iconic font, for example, and calling episodes “chapters”). But, on the other hand, it doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeves; it wears them like medals of honor. The plot is Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” by way of Stephen King’s “It,” with a heaping helping of the latter’s “The Mist” thrown in. And that’s not counting the horror posters scattered around the sets, the fantasy games the kids play and their sci-fi-flick-laced dialogue. Are these things strange? Yes. But stranger than what?

The cast is certainly solid. Winona Ryder is typically entertaining as Joyce, but she isn’t given a lot to do here other than pace nervously, her eyes eternally bugged out and her indoor voice constantly stuck in outdoor mode. But, hey, if you want nervous-out-of-her-skull single mom, Ryder has you covered.

David Harbour’s Chief Hopper is the most relatable character (which probably says more about me than it does about anything else), with a past that’s gradually unveiled, perfectly explaining his tightrope walk between being terrified in the face of the unknown and just trying to get through the day. Certainly all of the children are pretty irritating. It turns out that the squabbles that seemed so important to us at 12 are fairly petty past 21.

What the series does well, it does very well, and again, what it does well is atmosphere. The photography is clean, and more than that, it’s smart; Joyce’s increasingly bizarre house is shot like a fascinating Christmas light spider web, and a spooky forest on the bad side of reality is shot like a primeval nightmare. The monster design is good, and the horrors are a nice mixture of atmospheric and jump scares. The soundtrack is also surprisingly diverse while still sticking with an 80s theme (dig the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in episode three; neither the original nor the cover is from the 80s, but it works).

“Stranger Things” is a clever series that is perhaps more shallow than it thinks it is. Still, it’s not called “Deeper Things,” and I will be happily watching the second season until something deeper, and stranger, comes along.

Who’s haunting who?: A critical review of “The Awakening” (2011)

What are ghosts anyway? Horror, as a genre, has all sorts of answers, ranging from the traditional–spirits of the deceased–to the psychological–manifestations of guilt–to the Scooby Doo–it was the bank guard; it was always the bank guard. Starting off with a quote noting that, between World War I and the Spanish influenza epidemic, the first decades of the 20th century were a time for ghosts, writer-director Nick Murphy’s very BBC-looking film “The Awakening” seems to be taking a different approach, hinting that ghosts are not merely cultural or individual, but inextricably connected to the human zeitgeist.

Naw, I’m kidding. The movie’s about scary ghost children.

OK, it’s a little more complex than that.

The movie is actually about Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall, “The Gift”), a modern woman between the wars who smokes, wears pants and sits on the arm of the couch. She’s also a ghost hunter, or rather, a ghost debunker, as is evident in the first scene where she torpedoes a dubious seance. So it is with some trepidation that she takes on the case brought to her Robert Mallory (Dominic West, “The Wire”), who works at a school for boys outside of London, I will assume having little to no knowledge of the British countryside. Mallory explains that the school was once a private home, and one of the previous residents–a dead boy–has been seen by some of his students. One of them has been frightened to death. So Cathcart packs up her ghost debunking gear and heads out, only she will find more than she bargained for–although the viewer might be less surprised.

At least you will enjoy the ride visually. Murphy dots his cinematic landscape with reflected images and curious close ups, giving the film the sense of introspection. This is utterly fitting. In the end, this film is far more moody than it is scary (the chilly cinematography by Eduard Grau, who worked with Tom Ford on “A Single Man,” gives everyone touch of ill health). There are also a couple of jump scares–some work and some don’t. Oddly enough, it is when the film isn’t trying as hard to be “horror” that it works best. The sudden faces filling the screen aren’t nearly as effective as tension mounting in different rooms of the house while a boy silently smacks a ping pong ball against a wall.

In a way, this is a film about architecture and landscape. The film’s strongest asset is easily its set. The house grounds are well teased out and presented, and the building itself is huge, drafty and hollow, and fits well into both the movie’s atmosphere and its mystery. In fact, if anything, it could be developed more, as it only becomes a “character” during the movie’s climactic reveal. And the weakest asset? The soundtrack, a Gothic string of orchestral cliches.

It’s a better idea to focus on the actors. The supporting cast is great. Imelda Staunton is solid as a silent matron, Joseph Mawle is game as a creepy groundskeeper and Shaun Dooley is very good as a shadowy teacher–it’s a role that would have easy to overdo, but Dooley gives it an impressive sensitivity. However, the film is far more interested in giving screen time to its leads. Luckily for us, they are very attractive, both as actors and…well, it’s Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. They’re handsome people. The attraction that develops between them in the film is very organic, due as much to the script as to Hall and West’s natural charisma.

At the end of the day, this film feels like a piece of classic British ghost literature–perhaps too classic for some. One assumes the writing team knows what they’re doing. Murphy is a veteran of both American and English TV, and his co-writer Stephen Volk’s filmography certainly seems to contain a lot of horror. Still, the script is occasionally a bit too on the nose, and it contains too many endings for its own good, but it’s usually fine, albeit predictable. And every now and again, it’s suddenly smart. One set piece in particular, a large doll house, sticks out. I don’t want to say too much more. Suffice to say that the title is very much psychological. “Awakening” feels a bit like Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” not only in atmosphere, but also in its conflation of the fear of the supernatural and the horrors of war (in this case, World War I). “Awakening” doesn’t beat around the bush either–ghosts mean trauma, and everyone here is haunted.

“The Awakening” is not quite your standard horror film. Some viewers might be impressed by a strong female lead and her nuanced male co-star, both equally capable yet vulnerable; others might be bored by what is, admittedly, a familiar affair; as for myself, I’m just a sucker for a handsomely photographed haunted house story.