The following review contains spoilers.
In Wake Wood, Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle play a married couple who lose their nine-year-old daughter in horrific circumstances. In mainstream cinema, this would lead to the earnest soul-searching and Oscar-bait performances of films like In the Bedroom, The Door in the Floor or Rabbit Hole. But Wake Wood is the latest film from the new-model Hammer Film Productions. Which of course means the soul-searching is followed by lots of running, and screaming, and blood.
The loss of a child – and the consequences of misguided parental attempts to deal with that loss – is a recurrent theme in horror movies. The most agonising examples are Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 chiller Don’t Look Now, adapted from a story by Daphne du Maurier, and Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of the Stephen King novel Pet Sematary, which was pretty much dismissed on initial release but has since garnered something of a following.
Wake Wood cleaves more to Pet Sematary than to Don’t Look Now, with an attempt at corpse revival in the best tradition of W.W. Jacobs’s seminal 1902 short story The Monkey’s Paw, in which the eponymous object “had a spell put on it by an old fakir” who “wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow”.
Birthistle and Gillen install themselves in the small Irish village of Wake Wood (played by the border town of Pettigo, County Donegal) in an attempt to come to terms with their loss; he’s a vet, she’s a pharmacist. It also happens to be the only place in the British Isles with the means to raise the dead, which puts the kibosh on their grieving process and replaces it with deluded hope. Arcane pagan rituals are practised, but despite some superficial similarities, this is no Wicker Man community; the villagers, led by Timothy Spall (with underplayed Irish accent) as the local squire, appear to be well-meaning, and play by a stringent set of rules. The dead can be raised for three days only, giving their loved ones a chance to say the goodbyes they were denied in life.
Unfortunately, Gillen and Birthistle are so desperate to have their daughter back they’re prepared to break The Rules, with the sort of catastrophic consequences that anyone familiar with, say, the aforementioned Pet Sematary can predict. But let’s just say that young Ella Connolly shows a nice line in Damien-esque menace, with the costume department ringing the changes on that Don’t Look Now red raincoat by equipping her with a yellow slicker, which may itself remind diehard horror fans of Alfred Sole’s 1976 Communion, also known as (appropriately, given the name of Connolly’s character) Alice, Sweet Alice.
After Let Me In (the America-set remake of the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In) and The Resident (Hilary Swank stalked by her psycho landlord), Wake Wood is the latest evidence that new-model Hammer is harking back to a less atrocity-driven style of horror, built on an accumulation of creepy atmosphere rather than the systematic subjection of disposable teenagers to gruesome ordeals – though there’s no shortage of splatter here.
David Keating, who has been keeping a low profile since his promising Irish coming-of-age debut The Last of the High Kings some 14 years ago, co-wrote the screenplay with producer Brendan McCarthy (who also came up with the story) and directs with a merciful lack of such modern horror tropes as herky-jerky editing and overemphatic score – Michael Convertino’s soundtrack here leans towards a peculiar pagan-like percussion, echoing the equally peculiar village ritual of banging sticks together.
In fact, it’s the oddness of the rituals that provides the film with its most original aspects, combining elements of blood, earth and fire with the caesarean process by which we’ve already seen Gillen delivering a calf. I particularly liked the organic-looking, almost Cronenberg-esque abacus by which Spall and the villagers ascertain whether or not certain dead people are eligible for revival, and the most effective moments, for me, are the initial hints that something has gone horribly wrong.
The weakest aspect of the film – unfortunately for a story in which sense of place is paramount – is the topography. I had a hard time working out which house belonged to whom, and where the couple’s home was supposed to be in relation to the rest of the village, the woods, and the wind turbines which play important parts in the story. This could be a result of the relatively low budget, and having to patch together far-flung locations and pretend they’re all in the same area rather than being able to custom build your own pagan village to order. But I do think film-makers need to draw a geographical map of their story and know where everything is, and how the characters get from A to B. At times I felt lost in Wake Wood – and not in a good way.
But there’s enough here to make one look forward to Hammer’s next production – an adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, already turned into a long-running West End play and adapted for television (to terrifying effect) in 1989, by Nigel Kneale.
This review was first posted on theartsdesk.com, in 2011.
ETA: Further to my points about location in the penultimate paragraph, I thought The Woman in Black (2012) had even more problems in this area. The action hops from what is clearly a Yorkshire village to the Essex coast to landlocked East Midlands – all contrasting types of English landscape, but in the film it’s implied they’re all adjacent to each other. I’ve heard it expressed that American viewers wouldn’t notice this, and British viewers wouldn’t care, but, for me, it’s like a cowboy in a John Ford western riding out of Monument Valley and straight into the Louisiana bayou, and thence into a Kentucky wheatfield.
Perhaps the discontinuity was deliberate, or perhaps it was, again, a result of the low-ish budget ($15 million) making it impossible to build sets to order, the way Michael Cimino had an entire period town constructed to his exact specifications for Heaven’s Gate. But I never felt any such disjointedness in the 1989 TV film version of The Woman in Black, directed by Herbert Wise, which was presumably shot on a much lower budget. The locations are listed as Wiltshire, Hertfordshire and Essex, but if there’s subterfuge here, it works, because the continuity appears seamless, and the bulk of the action really does seem to be set on the same Godforsaken stretch of East Anglian coastline.
It saddens me that the film-makers of new-model Hammer seems to be ignoring the possibilities of the English landscape in favour of a hodge-podge of magpie borrowings patched together for the sake of convenience rather than any aesthetic consideration. The studio had no such difficulty in the past – it simply shot everything in and around Bray, in the process creating their very own mittel-Europe in the English Home Counties; it might not have been authentic, but the consistency of the house style did create its own authenticity.
The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are rooted in the British landscape – A Canterbury Tale, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ and Gone to Earth are unimaginable without their locations. Even backdrops as artificial as those in Black Narcissus, set in the Himalayas but shot at Pinewood and in West Sussex, create a world and landscapes that are utterly convincing.
Much of the power of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General stems from its East Anglia backdrop. You never doubt for a second that The Wicker Man is taking place on a remote Hebridean island, thanks to Dumfries and Galloway locations that look the part.
Of course low budget film-makers always have to cut corners, the adaptation of novels throws up its own set of problems, and studios and producers invariably try to impose their random ideas on writers and directors without giving much thought to unity, continuity and sense of place. But perhaps trying to find a location to match the one described in a screenplay is doing things the wrong way round. Maybe, once in a while, film-makers should try being inspired by the landscape (or a city, or a street, or a house) rather than first writing their story and only afterwards looking around for somewhere suitable to set it.