I’m not really a horror-movie person.

In some ways, this is for coward reasons. I don’t derive any thrills from being frightened! I find being frightened very unpleasant! I would much prefer to be spared the sudden supernatural and the psychopath photobomb! Everyone sit down and be sad where I can see you, please.

But I also have issues with horror movies as a genre; while I understand the politics and context that are always at play, and think that they are a pretty amazing quick-and-dirty mirror held up to cultural fears, there’s no catharsis for me in watching an extended metaphor for how being different, or a woman, or a believer, or a skeptic, or a child, means you’re slated to suffer. I got it; I’m all set.

However, despite myself, I am sometimes a sucker for some well-turned-out psychological suspense. And when someone offers me an atmospheric 1920s story in a gorgeously-shot remote boarding school, puts Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, and Imelda Staunton in it, and suggests both feminist and making-out overtones, I am going to see that puppy pronto.

And The Awakening is scary.

Part of this is for coward reasons. (I saw much of the movie hunched with my hands over my ears; at one point something happened and, before registering that I was afraid, I mauled my friend by somehow trying to crawl over her to escape. I was on the aisle.)

But it’s also scary in the way some horror films are scary, in that for the plot to work, the woman has to be totally wrong, and punished for it (or correct and still punished), and the psychological (and, arguably, feminist) subtext that could have been just descends into shortcuts and nonsense. And despite the chair-clawing surprises, the most frightening element of the movie is probably this frittering-away of its promise. You spend the movie thinking, “You know, with one more draft, I think this might have been GNAAAAAUGH.”

But let’s start at the beginning.

It’s 1921 in London, and there is a seance going on. Creepy bell jars! Candles that go out! A young girl appears in a reflection!

But Florence Cathcart is there undercover, and she’s not having any of your shit. She shuts everything down, rips the wig off a kid, yanks a wick out from under the table, and calls for her undercover sergeant to arrest everyone! (It’s for breaking in to the King’s Speech room. Trespassing’s a crime, you guys.)

In theory, this is awesome. However, this awesomeness only lasts until she gets outside, and the sergeant asks her not to boss him around because she’s a civilian ladyperson, even though if they were married he’d let her boss him around, but he’s already married so sorry. (He may or may not mention the fact that she’s educated. If he doesn’t, he is pretty much the only person in the movie who doesn’t.)

Then the lady who was hoodwinked slaps Florence right on the face and snaps that she probably doesn’t understand, since she doesn’t HAVE children.

And already the issues start, because we are supposed to realize she brought her fiance’s picture with her to the sting because Feelings, and she doesn’t have any children because Ghosts of World War I, and she stands in the middle of a beautiful street scene, quietly sadding everywhere. (This is her default for most of the rest of the movie.)

No sooner does she get back home than Dominic West shows up on her doorstep, in Retiring Stammer mode, to tell her he’s read her book on skepticism, and he hates it because it’s “too certain.” (And of course this is a ghost movie, so he’s already right, so already I am making a terrified face at this movie and no ghost has even happened yet.)

He teaches at a boarding school! It has a serious ghost boy problem, as can be seen in all these pictures where the ghost shows up in the annual class photo, mostly suggesting this ghost’s biggest problem is that it’s a teacher’s pet. Dominic is certain this is the ghost of a boy who was murdered in the house twenty-odd years ago, before it became a school (no moss growing under the feet of the ex-huge-house boarding-school industry), and that this ghost is responsible for the death of a boy last week, who was scared….TO DEATH.

And sitting in a room filled with stacks of case files and hate mail, in a truly stunning tweed pantsuit purchased with all her skeptic book-money, and in the employ of the police’s Debunk That Shit division, Florence tells him that she won’t be taking the case, because she’s “too certain” she hates this dude and doesn’t need to leave London to make some shit happen for herself, now get out.

Nope, sorry for the hopes, she does not do this. She gets on a train and heads right for Turn of the Screw Academy, where she gets to ride from the station in a car driven by Creepy Rapist who Hates Educated Sassy Women, and also carrying Dominic, who points out that if she doesn’t believe in an afterlife why is she carrying someone else’s cigarette case, because nostalgia and fondness is just like believing in ghosts, so take THAT, woman science.

Turn of the Screw Academy (Home of That Random Kid’s Murder 20 Years Ago) is peopled by redhead-hating little shits, Random Headmaster, Creepy Teacher, the adorably soulful yet oddly-unacknowledged-by-others Tom, and housekeeper Imelda Staunton, who immediately assures Florence that Florence has a #1 Fangirl in the house, because if there is one thing Imelda Staunton does not hold with, it is any nonsense about ghosts, isn’t that right, little Tom who no one else is looking at or speaking to!

Florence breaks out a CSI montage of tech, and they wander around the house putting up cameras and laying newspaper (Dominic: “But ghosts don’t have footprints.” “Little boys pretending to be ghosts do,” Florence says, in the Help Me Help You tone of someone already hoping for a better movie.). And naturally, she begins Wandering Alone at Night With a Very Small Light to investigate super-creepy hallways with huge exact-replica empty dollhouses at the end of them.

As it turns out, her first approach works wonders: she captures the redhead from newspaper-ink residue on his feet (YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAH /CSI credits), but he just promised to try to scare her to fit in! (Good thing she is not into scaring ghosts away by shooting them, I guess.

But it’s not the boy who’s responsible for Walter’s death! It’s the Creepy Teacher, who locked him outside to teach him a lesson about being strong, and then took the kid’s bear back inside, and the kid died of exposure and asthma without even his bear, murder solved and everybody grab a tissue, good god.

Creepy Teacher bursts into tears, and everyone very Britishly waits for him to just fire himself already and get the hell out. It’s awkward.

Well, mystery solved! Good movie, everyone! Teacher Dominic and his bullshit about ladies can leave first.

Except of course not! Now it’s the holidays, so she simply MUST stay and solve the mystery of why all those other boys have seen a ghost, and since she believes all ghosts are the tricks of people on people, the best way to do that is to wait until they’re all gone, because…things. (It’s falling apart! The dream is becoming unstable!)

Room after room of spooky shit sits empty, Imelda is oddly solicitous, the gardener keeps creeping by to look as rapey as possible, Teacher Dominic bathes and frowns manfully around the place and pours hydrogen peroxide into what looks like a leg pouch as if he’s storing up for the winter, and the only boy still at the school likes her fine! What can go wrong?

Obviously, everything. But not in the ways you think! Weirder, more confusing, totally nonsensical ways!

Sure, she decides to explore the house a lot alone at night with a single lantern. Sure, she is continually looking into the creepfuck dollhouse filled with exact replicas of her whenever she runs across it, even though it is always magically in a different location and therefore to be assiduously avoided because Are You Kidding Me Madam Please Get Out Of This House There Is Not Even a Weather Event Macguffin You Are Just In This House For Plotcakes What On Earth.

But I guess the big reason she needs to stay in the house is that there’s no viable male back home, now that the prince of a sergeant is taken, and this movie isn’t called The Awakening for nothing, if you get me.

Cue: Florence looking through a peephole as Dominic bathes! Saucy.

Cue: A walk through the woods where Gardner Rapist reminders her he hates educated women and their ideas! (About ghosts in specific, or just in general, is never determined.)

Cue: A long chat with Imelda and Tom about how she has a lot of memory loss as a child and her parents mysteriously died of fever in Africa how funny and weird is that given that her memories of them are so extremely vague and here Tom’s parents are also gone to a mysterious continent from which no one seems to be expecting them what a coincidence life sure is funny and unrelated!

Cue: Florence falling apart.

Not from any particular thing — sure, the house is creepy as shit, but it’s not the Dollhouse of FuckNo Lane making her fall apart; that’s a symptom of how her character has been poked like a balloon and left to deflate.

Thanks to some chat with young Tom, we find out that, of course, she’s so against ghosts because she is afraid she’ll want them to be real because she loved her fiance so, so much, which is why she wrote him that letter breaking it off when she was afraid she’d lose him, and then he died, and now she wants ghosts to be real because, one imagines, she would like to apologize for making zero sense and having no internal continuity or logic circuits or anything.

Tom mentions that he also gets lonely, and in fairness to little Tommy, he gives her the world’s longest, most pregnant pause to figure some things out, but she’s busy thinking about how terrible that backstory was and doesn’t notice. (Young Tom, it must be noted, also does a decent Help Me Help You face.)

It falls apart faster and faster. When she goes out to the dock on Haunted Pond to smoke, she drops her fiance’s cigarette case and the cigarettes go everywhere. She immediately turns her back on the cigarette case to pick up some cigarettes that have fallen behind her, which gives the cigarette case an opportunity to disappear, so she can reach into the water and a boy’s hand will come out and grab her, and she will pull back and gasp, then she will close her eyes and say “It’s not real” and then we will cut to an empty dock with smooth water, and as you turn to your friend who is already asking if there was a projection problem, Dominic and Florence burst out of the water together because apparently she fell in and it looked like she was trying to drown herself and he dove in and saved her and then they both just waited until the water totally calmed down, and it all sounds very exciting for anyone who got to see it!

Frankly, this is the point at which the movie lost me, but for those still hanging in there, never fear!

For while you are sitting there being increasingly bothered that someone who values that case as much as the previous beat suggested would just drop it and turn around to do something else first since that seems actually harder than just writing that it skittered off the edge of the dock and she immediately shoved her hand in after it, Florence decides to take a relaxing sexy bath and then hears someone at the peephole and starts asking Dominic to just stay there and enjoy the view as she walks to the peephole and looks through it and CreepyFuckGhostBoy is watching instead! WHOOPS. Also, given the later reveal, this shit is creepy as fuck, but we’ll get there.

It goes on (and on and on); she trips her own cameras in the hallway trying to run from a dude in a tux with a rifle, only to realize the dude isn’t in the photos – BUT THE LITTLE BOY IS, TWIST. And when you’re that scared, there is nothing to do but cry and then immediately bang Dominic West right in your makeshift darkroom as you pull all the curtains down and ruin your photo because definitely scientists are loosey goosey with evidence if they are ladies and wanting sextimes, and then, literally, Dominic goes upstairs and into his room and closes the door and we stay on the hallway as he says very seriously from behind the door, “She’s downstairs,” which technically has a reveal later but is so screamingly hilarible on its own that it does not matter. (The reveal is that he sees ghosts of his trench buddies. His trench buddies who are deaf, and super invested in knowing where Florence is.)

Things get confusing! Ghosts everyplace! She runs outside! Rapist gardner cracks her on the head and drags her into the woods to rape her because he hates the coeducational university system! She gets the best of him and beats his brains in with a shovel! We’re all fine with this! She runs back to the school to tell Dominic, who, despite seeing evidence of ghosts in the house and everyone being fairly certain the guy with the newly flat skull is probably not an immediate threat, is like, “Stay here, I’ll go out and bury the body at length!” And she shouts, “Don’t tell little Tommy, he’s scared enough as it is!” and he LITERALLY calls back that there is no little Tommy, just the three adults, and KEEPS JOGGING INTO THE WOODS SIR WHERE ARE YOU GOING CAN YOU NOT HEAR THE WORDS YOU SAID.

Florence, with nothing left to do but gird her loins and march into the ghost house for this movie’s back fifteen, heads down to the basement where the weird noises are coming from because why the fuck not at this point, and meets up with little Tom, who is obviously the boy who was killed, and who tells her to look into the dollhouse that is now in front of her in the musty basement to discover why this house seems to be haunting her.

Turns out she used to LIVE in this house! When she was a girl, her dad shot her mom because of an argument about his bastard son Tom with maid Imelda Staunton. Then he went looking for Florence, but because she was hiding with Tom and made a noise, because you know how girls do, he shot and hit Tom instead! When he realized he’d hit his son, the kid he actually loved, he shot himself in front of Florence because why not. So she lost her memory and has been creeped out by this house because it was really her home all along and she and Imelda and Tom have a weepy reunion, and the fact that he was not at all out to get her and is overjoyed to have her remember everything starts to remind you that, deep in the mists of time, this movie looked like it was going to be good.

Then they all gather to drink, because who is going to blame them, and Dominic leaves after a super significant look that can be subtitled “Laaaaaaaadies,” and they cheer and drink and then Imelda Staunton drops dead because now that they’re all back together and Florence remembers everything, Imelda wants them all to stay here together and be a family. It’s creepy, but also sad, because Imelda Staunton. Florence, however, doesn’t want to die, and after Dominic comes in to help and she sends him to look for an expectorant and he starts to look through the Narnia Wardrobe Medicine Cabinet of Never Any Expectorant Again, she and Tom have a little heart to heart where she tells him she loves him and will never forget him now, but that she wants to live and won’t he understand that, and Tom does understand, so he gets some expectorant because Jesus Christ get it together Dominic, and she and Tom embrace sweetly, like a big sister and the little brother who’s been stalking her around the house to try to jog her memory and who stared at her naked in the bathtub that one time.

At movie’s end, there’s a bit that’s supposed to hint she may or may not be a ghost, but she’s just so happy now that she has a boyfriend and all her life theories have been proven wrong and she’s had all that trauma that it doesn’t matter the end cut cut please just go.

In theory, this is a story about a skeptic coming to terms with her desires for family and belonging, letting go of the past, etc. Its ghost is benevolent, though what it represents is still suitably horrific. It has both feminist and romantic elements, which is very workable, in theory. The problem is that this movie does not exist in theory, it exists in a practice that uses the construct of Florence being wrong or punishable about EVERYTHING as the hinge on which every plot point swivels, from the existence of ghosts to the attempted rape, right down to the noise she made as a kid that doomed Tommy in the first place. (My other favorite might have been Dominic’s blase reveal in the denouement that he sees ghosts and so he knew she was wrong from the beginning. Our hero!)

The small moments – Florence and Dominic having a tense, spare conversation about life after the war, Imelda and Florence having semi-accidental mother-daughter confrontations, Tom and Florence finding kinship – carry much more weight than the anvil-y signposts along the way, and point at the movie this could have been. Instead, this movie is buried in the dollhouse basement of the movie The Awakening actually is: a gorgeously-shot, well-cast thriller with a creepy subtext that far outweighs its jump scares. (Except that one jump scare. Sorry, friend of mine. I’ll watch these at home from now on.)