Production Company: Hammer Films, Alliance Films, Vertigo Entertainment
Starring: Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Jeremy Irvine
Release Date: January 2, 2015 (US)
Runtime: 98 minutes
So let’s clear the air here right away: sequels suck. That is a rule as old as humanity (and possibly older). When the first anatomically modern human first painted a bison on a rock in some rock cave 35,000 years ago, his friends and family were undoubtably blown away by his artistic vision, and when he decided to follow up on and capitalize on his earlier success, I’m sure his critics said to themselves “Elk, huh? It’s okay, but it’s no Bison”. That is just the nature of art- we want to be surprised and amazed, and it is difficult for any artist to live up to the expectations of his or her audience and recapture the magic that enchanted them in the first place. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens are both amazing films, but it is because Cameron didn’t try to recreate Scott’s Alien, but rather to take a very different approach based in the same artistic universe. The Empire Strikes Back is actually a better film than A New Hope, but this also doesn’t really count, because it was not a true sequel, but rather the next part in a story that George Lucas always meant to be a trilogy. But for the most part, we can stick with our original hypothesis- that sequels suck.
With that in mind… The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death was actually not half bad. If we accept the fact that it was not and was never going to be as evocative and terrifying as James Watkin’s 2012 original, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and to just approach this film on its own merit, it is actually a pretty interesting and entertaining little supernatural period piece. Let’s try to do the impossible and forget that that is a sequel to a pretty fantastic horror movie, and just discuss the film as a freestanding piece of horror cinema. We’ll come back to tie it into the original in just a little bit (a side-note: in this case when I say “original”, I mean the original film in this franchise produced by the recently rejuvenated Hammer Films. Which was actually itself a remake of The Woman in Black, a television film directed by Herbert Wise in 1989, or at least based on the same novella, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, originally published in 1983. There was also a stage version, first produced in 1987, a four-part BBC radio production in 1993, and a 56-minute BBC radio adaptation in 2004. So even though it is relatively new to American audiences, it is fair to say it was a pretty well-known story over in the UK. Okay, I’m done now).
The film is set in England during World War II, during the blitz. It is 1940, and the Americans have yet to enter the war, leaving Britain to be pummeled by night raids by German bombers. London is a shambles, and thousands are left homeless, their houses pounded into rubble. For their safety, children of these homeless are being transported out of London under the watchful eyes of a young schoolteacher named Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and her strict superior, the unfortunately-named Mrs. Hogg (Helen McCrory). With hundreds of tons (or rather, tonnes, as the Brits would say) of high explosive being dropped from the sky every night, this seems like a good idea at the time. Right? Right?
Wrong. Because of course the place that they are being moved to for their safety just happens to be Eel Marsh House. It is safe in the sense that it is out in the remote country side, far away from the urban areas the Germans love to blow to pieces. However, it is less safe for a few other reasons. First of all, it is surrounded by tidal marshes that not only is a perfect place for children to wander into and drown, but that make it entirely inaccessible when the tides come in and flood the only road leading back to civilization. Civilization, in this case being a terrifyingly derelict little village whose soul inhabitant seems to be a crazy blind man who likes to whisper creepy poems at them in the dark. Another minor snag in the whole “bring them to the country for their safety” scenario is the murderous ghost who makes Eel Marsh House her home, killing children so that she can add them to her spectral family in a misguided attempt to scratch that maternal itch. Kind of a horror-movie version of Angelina Jolie.
Though the teachers obviously don’t know that last tidbit of information when they first arrive, it soon becomes clear to Eve that something is horribly wrong at Marsh House. Eve seems particularly sensitive to the place’s dark energy and can tell from the moment that she arrives that something is a little off. Maybe its the creepy gothic cemetery out back with the dates on them with really short intervals between the “born” and “died” dates carved into them. Maybe it is the fact that the house has been completely abandoned for the last 40 years or so, and has plaster falling off the walls and holes in the floors. Maybe it is the eerily preserved upstairs nursery filled with antique toys that appear to have been manufactured off of blueprints taken directly from the nightmares of children. Or maybe its the reoccurring nightmares she’s started having.
Or maybe it is that one of her charges, a boy named Edward Lee (Oaklee Pendergast) who was recently rendered mute by the psychological damage of being trapped in the rubble of his home with the bodies of his dead parents, and who communicates entirely through hastily scribbles messages on scraps of paper and unsettling drawings, has taken to drawing pictures of himself holding hands with a woman dressed all in black. Or the fact that the children start dying off, one by one, in particular the ones that are mean to poor little Eddy the Orphan.
It soon becomes obvious that the spirit has taken a shine to little Edward Lee, and wants to add him to her family. But the question is why does Eve feel a strange connection between her and the specter, as if it is a personal battle between them for the soul of the little boy, and how is she going to save him?
The most interesting part of the film is the evocative time period, and in the character of Eve Parkins and her strange spiritual sensitivity to the house, the boy, and the spirit. Phoebe Fox is utterly charming as Eve, an unassuming but lovely actress who is very believable in the role. It is really her story in many ways, and it was wise of the film-makers to let her story unfold over the course of the film, revealing it a piece at a time.
Most of this exposition is handled through her interactions with a young pilot named Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), who she meets on the train on the way to Marsh House and who predictably takes an instantaneous interest in her. He is stationed at a nearby airfield and starts popping by to “help” Eve in her duties. His role becomes more significant as the film progresses, and Jeremy Irvine goes a long way to giving the character a touch of dimension and depth.
Helen McCrory is significantly-less-charming-but-rather-delightfully-bitchy as Mrs. Judith Hogg, Eve’s superior. She isn’t given a terribly lot to do other than be extremely cold and severe and act as the film’s inevitable naysayer and “voice of reason” to keep the cast of tiny victims in the playing field until film’s conclusion. However, there are a few moments when she is allowed to allow her humanity show through, revealing a character under the fringes of the archetype.
The film is an understated kind of horror rather than being bombastic, with most of the true scares being of the short-lived “boo” variety. However, there are a few sparse scenes of actual evocative supernatural horror, somewhat undermined by relying on the cliches of the genre of the rocking-chair-rocking-by-itself variety. But for the most part it is a competent and understated supernatural drama, surprisingly story-driven and made marginally more interesting by its historical setting.
So now back to the original film, and this movie’s relationship to it. What made the original film so terrifying is the revelation of the origins of the titular ghost and its constant and terrifying presence throughout, her presence always haunting the periphery of every scene even when she doesn’t actually show up in it. The film was evocative, the feeling of dread constant and pervasive, the ghost herself devastatingly arcane and horrifying. It was called The Woman in Black for a reason, because it really was really and truly her movie; her house, her victims, her story, with Daniel Radcliffe, as good as he was, merely acting like an archaeologist slowly unearthing her origins piece by piece until we finally had the whole horribly frightful picture.
In The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, the ghost has been pushed to the margins of her own story. We already know her story from the first film, so it is almost fleetingly summarized and plopped in our lap, reduced to a plot device. Eve’s story, as well is it is done, can’t hold a candle to the mind-numbing horror of the first film, and honestly doesn’t even try. Eve’s story is more personal, and thus more about her than it is about the ghost supposedly at the heart of the film. The plot device of the ghost that murders children is present, but the ghost herself is not. She feels like a supporting role in her own film, reduced to a few cheep scares and cameos peeping through windows and holes in the floor. Even the Eel Marsh House itself, the eeriness of which was such a big part of the first film’s evocative horror, feels like a shadow of its former self.
The biggest problem is that this was not a movie that needed a sequel. The Woman in Black herself is no Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees; she is not a bombastic monster/killer to get trotted out to murder children every few years in increasingly ridiculous ways. She is gothic, the fireside ghost story that makes you look over your shoulder and examine the darkest corners of your living room in the wee hours of the night. As such, the more you see her, the less effective she is.
Ironically enough, it seems like the film-makers knew this, but were forced to make a sequel anyway. As such the ghost stays out of the spotlight of her own film, leaving us with a sad school marm in a creepy house during World War II. Hers is an interesting story in and interesting setting. But for the most part The Woman in Black 2 is haunted less by the titular ghost, and more by the audience’s memories of its remarkably good predecessor. It was a film that didn’t need a sequel, but they did anyway, and the results are at least better than they should have been. And that is really the best we could have hoped for.