I remember relatively recently an advert aired on television hawking some sugar free cola type product to youngish, “trendy but not edgy” males.
It featured an everyman type figure walking down a non-descript yet faintly “hip and urban” street in an unspecified, but ostensibly European, city saying something like “if only everything in life was like the black fizzy liquid in this bottle that tastes great but doesn’t have sugar!”
His buddy joined him, slapping his back in an overtly jocular and fraternal style, and created another inane simile comparing the drink to something universal: “yeah, it’s like football, but without the overpaid players.”
At this some workmen, overhearing the riveting interplay between Man A and Man B, climb down from their scaffolding andcast off their high-visibility jackets so as to join in: “yeah, like women, but without the constant nagging.” A businessman, nodding zealously at his comrade’s statements, joins the throng, loosening his tie and undoing his top button as he says, “wowzers guys, I know just what you mean. This zero sugar full taste cola drink really is something, it’s like Friday nights but without the Saturday mornings, know what I mean?”
The gang swells in size and swaggering confidence until there is a veritable crowd of young, upwardly mobile males walking through the city’s streets all patting each other on the back and shouting “yeah! This low cal fizzy pop really is the best thing in my tedious, miserable, hand wringing, sickening excuse for life. It‘s like that thing we all like but without the thing about it that we don‘t.”
What interested me about this advert was not the drink itself; I’d tried it when it had been launched at one of those pop-up stalls they have in major cities up and down the country and I felt it lacked punch.
What interested me was this large group of bros from diverse backgrounds, of different creeds, colours and classes all united under a single glorious banner. The banner was not the soft drink in question, people only cared for this because it had acted as a catalyst for an amazing moment of street synergy and camaraderie. Whilst the soft drink was very well liked by our smorgasbord of average blokes, what drew these young, grinning men together was the way in which it had given them a platform to communally construct similes and then congratulate each other for making the mental leap required to come up with a comparative communicative technique.
I felt alienated when watching this advert, I can construct a simile with the best of them but in this instance there was a specific formula to adhere to and a specific group mentality that – being a lonely, hermit like figure – I was unfamiliar with. Something universal that is well liked but in some way flawed, what simile could I come up with to make my fellow worker bees smile and thus be allowed access to their inner sanctum – a brave new world consisting of blokey nights out, girlfriend trouble and serious, speculative discussions on local sporting teams.
Well, after watching new BBC production The Awakening – a film that was on wide general release in the UK – I too can join the ranks of aspirational male cola drinkers everywhere and say with authority and universality “yes, if only all things in life were like this miracle tonic, it’s like The Awakening but without the cripplingly awful, eye gouging-ly horrible, brain meltingly ill advised final third.”
See, The Awakening could be the best British horror film in years, but it’s not because of the inclusion of a truly nauseating, stinking turd of a final half hour.
For simplicities sake let’s envisage that part of the movie, the shit part, as the “sugar.”
All the rest of the movie is the cola, and the cola element of this film is fantastic. It’s a moody, atmospheric cola highly reminiscent of The Orphanage, high on slow burn calories, low on saturated shock scares. But the sugar of this film? Well it‘s like anything sugary, it makes you feel a bit sick if you get to much of it.
The skinny: Just after the 1st World War recently widowed Florence Cathcart (played with breathy, sensual by total babe Rebecca Hall) is the hoax finder General, so good the opening scene sees her working alongside the Met in an Operation Trident style raid exposing a group who purport to be in contact with The Other Side.
She’s written a book that is widely read and inexplicably hated by handsome school teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic ’Jimmy McNulty’ West) who lives and works at Mr Darcy’s house from the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. In this incarnation the house is an oppressive boy’s boarding school, allegedly haunted. Things start extraordinarily well; well shot, well written, and well British.
The context of the film is initially used to good effect, with all the characters “haunted” collectively by the 1st World War, absent parents, and childhood trauma making the audience question, as in other classic gothic ghost tales like The Turn of the Screw or The Black Cat, the extent to which the phantoms are “real.”
Are these apparitions simply the projections of the repressed emotions of the protagonists? Maybe… One truly fantastic scene that points the audience in the direction of this kind of Freudian repression type reading sees Florence in the bath, thinking she is being watched by Robert through a small hole in the wall.
Unashamed, she gets out of the hot water naked and walks seductively to the peep hole calling to him, baring her breasts and swinging her hips suggestively. It’s a sexy scene until the face behind the peep hole is revealed as a twisted, and sallow face; a ghost child screaming at her. Is the ghost real or is this simply Florence feeling guilty for being attracted to somebody so soon after her husband’s horrific trench-related death?
This kind of thing isn’t new, but it isn’t new for a reason. Done well, the old is it / isn’t it real-slowly-disquieting-super-tense-horror-slow-burner is one of the most effective ways of getting an audience’s heartbeat racing. It’s classic and, as is the nature of classics, or even the reason we have term in the first place, it has stood the test of time.
Sadly though things unravel after the first hour and The Awakening tries to have its cake and eat it by (spoiler alert) being about both a repressed memory and a “real” supernatural ghost at the same time. This strange double narrative is overwrought and feels overwritten, as if somebody at the script stage was saying “no, we need another twist in here.”
The basic twist – and at its heart it is a very basic idea confused by silly narrative ornamentation that leads us nowhere and serves only to pile on the layers of artifice – is that Florence used to live in the house before it was a boarding school.
She left as a small girl after her father shot murdered her mother and illegitimate brother before turning the gun on himself – she was later told that they died from lion related injuries. Maude housekeeper and wet nurse was the mother of the illegitimate brother, and after the shotgun spree she stayed at the house to become school matron, not least because her son, the illegitimate brother, is now haunting the place (still with me?). Maude, usingt the unique decision making process open only to sub-characters in horror movies designs to make school teacher Robert invite hoax-hunter Florence to the school under the pretence of stopping the boys from scaring each other silly with ghost stories and bumps in the night, though actually she’s trying to make FLorence remember that her family did not die from lion induced wounds but rather by shotgun courtesy of a mental Dad. Phew.
My question; why the fuck didn’t Maude just tell her? Write a letter, Maude can write, just write a letter that says Dear Florence, your dad shot your mum, our illegitimate son (your half brother) and himself. Your foster parents lied about that whole lion thing. Sorry about that, you’ve never actually been to Africa. Love, Maude, your old wet nurse. P.S. If you want to talk to your half brother he is now a ghost so you can.
And don’t tell me ‘because that’s a rubbish story’ I know it’s a rubbish story. That’s the point. This premise which suddenly crops up in the last forty five minutes is useless, flaccid and full of gaping holes.
What Maude chooses to do makes no sense. And the film expects us to buy that university educated, very bright, very logical Florence lived in Mr Darcy’s pad for about eight years, and then just forget because of the trauma? Surely she has some vague recollection of her old wet nurse? Her old bedroom? Surely? Look at those poor old boys, her contemporaries, who went to war and experienced trauma on a similar scale, they certainly didn’t “forget” what happened. That’s not how repressed memories work.
I should say that all this lion, brother, family shooting stuff kind of comes out of left-field around the sixty minute mark and everything goes belly up from there on in. It really is as if the last part of the film was written by a different person to the first part.
See, like the bods who came up with that cola advert, the Beeb would have tried to market this project at a particular demographic, and I think they ended up settling for the sort of arse scratching ape people who bemoan the fact that they didn’t get a gold star when they sit through anything more taxing than X-Factor.
The Awakening is for those whose incredulity factor is set so low that they’d buy the cheapest, clunkiest plot twists (Maude asks her ghost son to scare Florence in an insanely callous attempt to jog her memory, hence the horrifying/sexy bath scene – now with added incest… ); the most clichéd lines of dialogue straight out of Awful Expositionary Dialogue 101 (“we need to make these boys tough Robert… Tougher than we were… In the War… The… Trenches… Gah… The horror…”); and superfluous characters (“hey, I’m a rapist who didn’t serve in the War, also the school janitor. I‘m going to try and rape you now Florence because I have no function other than to be a dick to all the main characters. Oh you killed me. Cool, now I don‘t have to mope about with nothing to do.”).
All the subtle and ingenious lines of intrigue set up in the first hour are tied up in the final ten minutes or so like it’s an episode of Doctors.
Clearly there was somebody very smart working on the script at one point, and the cast do a lot with what they’re given (most of the time, Imelda Staunton’s Maude delivers some absolute clangers, but I don’t feel like she’s a bad actor). So what the hell happened to this movie?
My guess is that Joe Producer has a very low opinion of the cinema-ticket buying public and forced the hand of the creative team involved to dumb the movie down to its lowest common denominators, selling out the complex and interesting story at its heart. The second half of the film tells us everything didactically, the first half shows us with subtlety and sleight of hand.
When I want a full fat, balls to the wall can of cola I go out and buy one. Whether the high sugar content is bad for me or not. I’m a hedonist, a man at the mercy of my whims – my girlfriend sends me to Morrisons with a list of stuff to get and sometimes I’ll come back with no veg and loads of ice cream.
When I want to enjoy a sugar free alternative, I don’t want to feel as if the drink is missing its key ingredient. I want my sugar free cola to be, if anything, exactly the same as the regular cola in terms of oral pleasure but without the guilt associated with having something that’s bad for me.
The zero sugar cola should be a refinement on the regular model.
The Awakening is not a refinement. It’s a bizarrely confused tangent to the gothic ghost story with something lost in translation.
In it’s rushed sprint finish for closure, it loses sight of what it is or what it could be, which I believe is an intelligent, consummate film made by stiff upper lip merchants in the vein of Nigel Kneale at his 60s and 70s Quartermass best, mixed in with the hallucinatory psycho-analytic European horror of the last decade or so. What we end up getting is a tacky, schlock-tastic BBC costume drama with ghosts thrown in for good measure.
This is a real wasted opportunity, a real shame and God damn, it was nearly fantastic.