Written by: Joe Croker (screenplay), Susan Hill (story)
Directed by: Tom Harper
Starring: Helen McCrory, Jeremy Irvine, and Phoebe Fox
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
She never left.
A glance at Hammer Films’s output during its heyday leads to the tempting assumption that the studio often played it safe; after all, producing a combined 14 sequels for its Frankenstein and Dracula series in a 16-year span sure looks like the work of a company that was content to provide comfort food for its faithful audience. It doesn’t help that the previous couple of decades have conditioned us to see studios as assembly lines for readymade product, either.
However, Hammer rarely retreated to familiar comforts with its franchises: Dracula didn’t even show up for the first sequel, later awoke in 1972, and eventually found himself in a Shaw Brothers co-production. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein starred in a series of increasingly strange and distinctive adventures, and even sat one entry out when Hammer attempted an oddball reboot (upon The Horror of Frankenstein’s flop, Cushing returned for one more—Hammer was daring but not that daring, I suppose).
All of this is to preface my disappointment that the same can’t be said of Hammer’s new iteration, at least if The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is any indication. Far from the weird, unique follow-ups the studio once produced, this is a sequel that feels as though it were manufactured from a template. The only surprise is that it took nearly three years to unload, as it feels like the sort of movie that could have been hastily churned out to capitalize on the unexpected popularity of the original. Hammer took its time with this one, but not much else.
Set decades after the first film, Angel of Death opens in war-torn London, where Nazi Germany blitzes the capital on a nightly basis. As bombs rain down, a group of schoolchildren huddle alongside Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), their young teacher who soon doubles as a surrogate mother for the brood when they’re evacuated to the countryside. Specifically, they’re shipped off to Eel Marsh House, the now-infamous estate that’s haunted previous tenants. Well, infamous to us, anyway; no one in this company seems to be clued in that the place has been abandoned, boarded, and shut up for good reason, so when Eve begins to suspect something is supernaturally amiss, we’re left to watch yet another group uncover the sordid history of the mansion before its vengeful wraith claims the schoolchildren.
The familiarity is quite overwhelming; despite the title, this is less a continuation and more a sequel that simply transplants the original’s story to a different time and a new set of characters. Given the fate of Daniel Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps in the first film, this is hardly a surprise, but this film’s distance from the original isn’t exploited to any great effect. Instead, it’s just an excuse to retrace steps, only the mystery surrounding the title character becomes a cursory footnote in the mechanical procession of flitting, ghastly imagery and cheap chair-jumpers. The Woman in Black 2 is a horror movie on rails, with its carts dutifully creaking through the proceedings as if they were a haunted house attraction: on your left, there’s the Woman in Black hanging out in the background on the frame; on your right, some kid’s face jolting onto the screen as a fake-out. Dead ahead—but only after 90 minutes—is the exit, where the film will soon dissipate the moment you see so much as a poster for another movie in the lobby.
Just as such dimly-lit attractions send customers stumbling back out into the world, so too does The Woman in Black 2 send theater patrons back out in a daze as they encounter light. The first thing you notice about this film is the familiarity; the second is just how dark it is. A constant pallor hangs over each frame—appropriate draping for a film situated in desolate marshlands, sure, but director Tom Harper drowns the setting in an overly murky, funereal vibe. For every evocative and atmospheric long shot of the Eel Marsh, there’s a lengthy sequence of someone poking around in darkly-lit rooms waiting to be shocked by the horrors waiting within. It makes for a good case study: though Harper faithfully replicates the general aesthetic of his predecessor, his film has none of the suspense, characters, or intrigue to bring it alive. This is just a handsomely crafted funeral procession that careens into a mess of overblown horror movie clichés.
All the darkness suffocates some genuine bright spots. Fox is relatively fresh face with a mature, maternal presence—this might be a dull, repetitive movie with people obliviously skulking around an obviously haunted house, but at least it’s not full of vapid, teen-horror caricatures. It’s a shame so little is done with Fox’s character, though; she might be outfitted with a standard-issue traumatic backstory and develop a relationship with a local airman (Jeremy Irvine, looking like a baby-faced Chris Nolan), but these are practically accessories. So, too, is are the meticulous production and designs, which authentically recreate World War II-era England, a setting that also becomes increasingly incidental as the film trudges on and foregoes every opportunity to couch personal tragedy in a nation’s shared trauma to make any kind of point whatsoever.
Once you make peace and quickly realize that The Woman in Black 2 has no such aspirations and is fine with being a modern ghost story wearing vintage tweed, it’s a mildly acceptable diversion—perfectly okay, even. You expect more from Hammer Films, though, especially since the resurrected studio has shown glimpses of its former glory. Whenever it attempts to keep up with trends as it has recently, it’s an ill-fit—this is an outfit that should be sounding the genre bellwether, not obediently following the lead and churning out obligatory product like this. The Woman in Black 2 isn’t just bogged down—it never had a chance to flourish. Rent it!
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