It is a somewhat vexed genre these days, the ghost film – gone is the time when shivers could be raised by phantoms going ‘woo, woo’, hence the works of Susan Hill (The Woman in Black, which was filmed succesfully in 1989 with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale and also in 2012 by James Watkins starring Daniel Radcliffe) and Ramsey Campbell, none of which feature gentle spiritual visitors, but rather shades with deadly agendas and intentions.
And Nick Murphy’s film (his first feature) does try very hard to follow this example – it’s set in 1921, with England still in the pall of the loss and grief wrought by World War I. Determined supernatural hoax exposer Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who is driven by her own demons that gradually reveal themselves as the film progresses, takes up the invitation of Cumbrian boarding school teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to explain the sightings of a child ghost which is apparently terrifying all his pupils. Upon arrival, she is greeted by housekeeper Maud Hill (Imelda Staunton) who tells her that she doesn’t ‘hold with any of this ghost nonsense’ and then, of course, the fun begins.
The screenplay, by Murphy and Stephen Volk, does a very good job in recreating an era with credible, well-tuned exchanges, but where it ultimately fails, in this reviewer’s opinion, is in its failure to deliver genuine scares to match the film’s earlier hints and whispers, and in its insistence on maintaining a cold distance between the audience and its central character.
True, there are some excellent set-pieces and the twist, when it comes, is rather impressive, but one if left with the overall impression of a missed opportunity, rather than the rattling-good tale-around-the-camp-fire that this could so easily have been.