Monday, January 5, 2015


(US/UK/Canada - 2015)

Directed by Tom Harper. Written by Jon Croker. Cast: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Oaklee Pendergast, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy, Leilah de Meza, Jude Wright, Pip Pearce. (PG-13, 99 mins)

When it hit theaters three years ago, THE WOMAN IN BLACK was a nice throwback to gothic, old-school British horror and was one of the very few offerings from the newly-revived Hammer Films that was worthy of flaunting the beloved house of horror's treasured name. Other than THE WOMAN IN BLACK and the LET THE RIGHT ONE IN remake LET ME IN (2010), there hasn't been much for horror aficionados to get excited about with Hammer, which will henceforth be referred to as "Hammer" because, let's face it, it's not really the same Hammer and the current owners are just using it for name-branding to get a pass from horror scenesters. It seemed to work until last year's pedestrian THE QUIET ONES seemed to alienate everyone and finally expose "Hammer" as an in-name-only fraud. Now, "Hammer" is trying to win them back with the unnecessary THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH, a sequel with no returning cast members, filmmaking personnel, or characters, save for the titular ghost. This would seem to have "straight-to-DVD" written all over it, but it's a very atmospheric film with impeccable production design and some good performances, but after an intriguing set-up, it doesn't take long for the film to play all of its cards and exhaust the few original ideas it's got. Repetition sets in and the vivid period detail can only carry things so far.

Set roughly 30 years after the events of the first film, the sequel opens in 1941 during the Blitz in WWII. As London reels from the nightly destruction brought by German bombing raids, a small group of children, some orphaned, some with parents unable to leave, are sent off with their school headmistress Mrs. Hogg (HARRY POTTER vet Helen McCrory, also of PENNY DREADFUL and PEAKY BLINDERS) and young teacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) to the distant and presumably safe confines of Eel Marsh House, home of the ghostly Woman in Black. Eve is drawn to young Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), a shy, lonely boy who hasn't spoken a word since his parents were killed. On two different occasions, Eve catches a glimpse of the Woman in Black (Leanne Best) only to have her disappear, and Edward begins behaving strangely after an encounter with her in a locked room, after which one of Edward's bullying tormentors (Jude Wright) is found dead. Mrs. Hogg will hear nothing of Eve's claims that someone else is in the house with them even as the bodies of children start piling up, and the only person willing to listen to Eve is Harry (Jeremy Irvine of WAR HORSE), a shell-shocked pilot still haunted by a botched mission where everyone under his command was killed.

Working from a story by Susan Hill, the author of the 1983 novel The Woman in Black, screenwriter Jon Croker offers an unexpected depth to the characterization. Much like Daniel Radcliffe's widower lawyer in the 2012 film, everyone is silently nursing some devastating emotional trauma that makes it easy for the Woman in Black to prey on their weaknesses, whether it's Harry's war memories, Mrs. Hogg's concern over her grown sons fighting in battle, or a traumatic event in Eve's past that explains her motherly concern for the troubled Edward. Croker and director Tom Harper let the tension mount in an admirable fashion, but once everything is established, there's really nowhere to take it, and Harper soon reveals himself to be a one-trick pony when it comes to his overuse of piercingly-loud jump scares. There's a few occasions where it works, like Eve bending down to pick something up and the camera panning back up with her to show a writhing, shaking body hanging from a noose in the middle of the room. But long before the 17th or 18th time Harper pans across and has the camera stop and focus on a dark spot in the middle of a barren room--and this is a very darkly-shot film--for seconds on end only to have a horrific CGI ghost face suddenly appear, accompanied by a shrill scream, you've figured out his game. It gets almost farcical after a while, as Harper comes dangerously close to turning the third act into EXORCIST MAZE GAME: THE MOVIE. In its quieter moments, THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 is more successful, with the depressing, dilapidated interior of Eel Marsh House and the perpetually gray skies and rain doing their part to convey an appropriate sense of melancholy and despair. The lone road to Eel Marsh House--that long causeway leading to the house that disappears when the tide comes in--remains an effectively chilling image and Harper pulls off a few striking shots both inside and outside the mansion. Despite these positives--and Fox is a very appealing heroine--THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 suffers from a sense of indecisiveness and an uneven tone that stems from its wish to stay true to the Hammer of the past and its mandate to placate fans of the "Hammer" of the present. It wants to be a moody gothic chiller but it has to please the cheap jump-scare crowd. At least it doesn't pander to found-footage aesthetics, and in that respect, it's a major improvement over the quite disappointing THE QUIET ONES.

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