THE WOMAN IN BLACK

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04:04:17

A long time ago at a Film Night far, far away we watched the 1989 version of The Woman in Black. Compared to that, this 2012 Hammer production is a lavish affair. Eel Marsh House seems to grow organically from the ground, encased in roots and creepers and alive with supernatural promise. Whereas the earlier version made a virtue of desolation and subliminal tension, this one revels in period decoration and trinket-stuffed interiors. It is quite comforting to have Hammer doing what they do best though. Being back amongst the heavy velvet curtains, huge rooms and sweeping staircases is like putting on a favourite old coat.

It is basically a haunted house story, therefore all the clichés are there, but that’s kind of the point isn’t it? Aiming to break new ground or be cutting edge would be churlish. Anyway if you happen to be the studio that first developed the aforementioned clichés for mass consumption, I say good luck to you for giving them a home again.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young solicitor whose wife died in childbirth some years earlier. As a last ditch attempt to save his job he is tasked with examining the documentation of Eel Marsh House, an empty, dead residence on an island only accessible by a treacherous causeway over tidal marshes. The previous owner was a Mrs Drablow who mourned a lost a son swallowed up by the mud of the salt flats.

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We have a glitter lamp in the living room which we habitually have on when watching films. On this occasion it started faltering a bit, flashing on and off by itself. It probably needs a new bulb or something. It’s amazing how often these fluctuations matched the action onscreen. For example, as Arthur first stepped over the threshold of Eel Marsh House, the light went off and stayed off for some time. During lurid periods of frenzied activity it strobed and pulsed. The environment certainly has an effect on the whole experience of absorbing any stimulus, and in this case it inexplicably enhanced it.

I expected Radcliffe to be weak because of his unavoidable boyishness, but he acquitted himself adequately, although looking slightly out of his depth on occasions. Unfortunately he is often onscreen with the orming Irish character actor Ciarán Hinds who plays Sam Daily. His presence overshadows Radcliffe’s with a ruffled, looming earthiness. He befriends the young solicitor, and as he owns a car, offers to ferry Kipps to and from the island.

Directed by James Watkins, from a book by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black has been made into a TV movie, a stage play and a serialised radio drama, always to great acclaim. The screenplay is by Jane Goldman who keeps everything ticking over nicely, like the clockwork mechanisms of the antique toys in the film used to such unnerving effect. There is a real feel for the Gothic flicker of a shadow passing across a mirror or a barely glimpsed silhouette in the background. Maybe the Woman in Black is seen too early on though? Maybe the dread should have been given more time to soak in?

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The house used was Cotterstock Hall in Oundle, Northamptonshire. The outside of it is all enhanced with CGI tendrils and vein-like roots climbing the walls. The causeway over the marsh was actually the path to Osea Island on the Essex coast. Filming could only take place there within a four hour window because of the tides. It has to be said that the drive inland from the island takes the viewer suddenly from flat salt marshes to Yorkshire Dales type limestone hills and drystone walls. It creates a kind of geographical disconnection which jars a bit.

It’s a great fun, back of the sofa film with no complicated underlying concepts to bother yourself with, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. A worthy, old-school Hammer jumpfest with high production values, impressive design, exquisite interiors and a solid script. Is it as good as the 1989 version? There’s only one way to find out I guess. We’re going to have to watch that again now.

There you go, and I didn’t mention Harry Potter once.

Damn!

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WAKE WOOD

28:03:17

How appropriate that Hammer‘s first theatrical release for 30 years should be a story based around rebirth. A couple who lost their young daughter to a savage dog attack are granted her back for three days, but three days only. Enough time to say their goodbyes, then they must relinquish her back to the grave.

Vet Patrick (Aidan Gillan) and pharmacist Louise (Eva Birthistle) set out to begin a new life in Wakewood (it’s all one word on the road sign), but they stumble into a patriarchal society with a secret knowledge of resurrection. The Lord Summerisle of the piece is Timothy Spall, all tweeded up and softly spoken as Arthur, the leader of the community.

The rebirthing ritual is suitably convoluted and gory and it visually mirrors Patrick’s work as a vet delivering calves.  It requires a dead body, and luckily a man gets crushed by an unruly bull on cue, so that’s that sorted. It also requires a relic from the person to be resurrected, so it gives Patrick and Louise the chance to go to their daughter’s grave at night and  exhume her. In classic Hammer style it’s pouring with rain as Patrick shovels out the earth and splits the coffin lid with Louise looking on.

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Sure enough, via lots of goo, ritual spine cutting and fire, nine year old Alice (Ella Connolly) is given another three days alive with her parents. There are strict rules to keep to and the stipulations need to be exact. Unfortunately Mum and Dad were a little lax with one of the key elements and things go slightly awry.

Wake Wood tries so hard to be a folk horror film, but it is way too physical and modern looking. There isn’t a grounding in deep time. We don’t get the history of the place and the background of the characters is scant. I would have liked to have got to know them better and cared for them more.

The editing is at times overdone. Long, lingering, haunting shots are largely absent, and I think this harms the build up of atmosphere. I don’t think the film’s problems are budget related. Sure, it was made without spending millions, but wouldn’t it be cheaper to film fewer shots and edit them more thoughtfully? It has the look of a TV movie in parts. Contrast this with another low budget British folk horror movie, The Borderlands (2013) to observe how creepiness can be created via stasis.

The supernatural element isn’t brought forward often enough, and the gore is unpleasant to look at, but not scary. There are nice touches, for example a small wind farm delineates the outer perimeter of the town, the huge white windmills marking a boundary between old and new.

The ending is extremely clever. The more I think about it, the more it seems a really creepy idea. Could a Wake Wood 2 develop from it?

The film was directed by David Keating. He hired Chris Maris as cinematographer after seeing his work on the Swedish horror flick Frostbite (2006). Despite its extremely Irish look, much of Wake Wood was filmed in Sweden. Judging by other reviews lots of people rate this picture highly, and at the core it has heart and guts and deserves to be seen. Hammer are always welcome at Film Night.

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IMAGES OF THE MAKING OF WAKEWOOD

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