Hammer is one of the iconic film studios, known throughout the world. Its films elevated the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into the stratosphere. Unfortunately they closed in the 80s, banishing British horror to a limbo like state, with only films like 28 days later and long time dead escaping the void. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the old, hammer studios returned a few years ago. It may have fulfilled the wishes of the horror community, but those well wishes haven’t been satisfied as of yet. All that we have seen from the rejuvenated icon is a remake of a Swedish film and a limp Hilary Swank vehicle. But now the studio has finally got its act together and has released a film that is true to its legacy. That film is Wake wood.
Wake wood is comparable to Rabbit Hole as they are both about the way in which grief is handled after parents lose their young child. But that is where the comparison ends, where Rabbit Hole is about the real world, Wake Wood takes a much more fantastical route. After Louise (Eva Birthistle) and Patrick (Aidan Gillen) see their daughter brutally killed by their dog they move to the small rural Irish village of Wake Wood: a village which upon first glance looks innocent. That illusion is sustained until the couple’s car breaks down and in trying to get help they see that this town is more complex than meets the eye as the town’s people are taking part in a disturbing ritual.
As the brilliant Timothy Spall explains, this disturbing ritual is a pagan rite that is carried out that can bring the dead back to life for three days. In these three days they can see their beloved daughter one last time to say goodbye, but the death has to have happened under a year ago. After shrugging the idea off as ludicrous the couple eventually succumb to the love of their daughter and carry out the ritual.
Modern horror usually values gore above all else and Wake Wood, at least for a while is a nice rebuttal to that ideal. This film celebrates the everyday happiness that young children bring to a family; these scenes where the rejuvenated couple are playing and spending time with the brutally killed Alice are heart-warming. Children at that age are so full of wonder and whimsy and the film uses that to great effect. But with it being a horror that ideal doesn’t stay true for long as Alice breaks and goes on a murderous rampage.
Wake Wood may be a story about how a child back from the dead runs amok whilst killing villagers, but I have a slight quibble with its execution. What happens in the afterlife that results in a 5/6 year old girl coming back with the strength to punch a hole through someone’s stomach? But this is a horror, believability isn’t the modus operandi. All the same, with the story being what it is there are references to The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now, The Omen and Children of the Corn, and it works here as the references don’t become the film. Wake Wood still maintains an identity of its own.
The monster here is a sweet little girl and in my past reviews I have been all too ready to criticise child actors. Like is increasing true with recent releases this isn’t the case here, Ella Connolly who plays Alice, is simultaneously a monster and angel. She is both cute and sweet, the same sort of characteristics that made the ending of Blue Valentine so heart-crushing, as well as being a creature of menace. This menace isn’t solely a construct of the film makers, Ella Connolly really knows how to hold herself in an emotionally cold and detatched manner. That’s not to say that this film is scary, because it isn’t, but it does possess an atmosphere of all its own, which is much more important in horror .This is partly true thanks to the most unlikely of horror monsters however it is also helped by the bass rumble that is present throughout the whole film, it gives a very odd and unpredictable feel to the film without telling you how to react and what to expect.
The other headline actors are good if slightly subdued. This is especially true in the case of Aidan Gillen, he does everything he needs to but at the same time it doesn’t feel like he is trying. The same is true of Birthistle, who plays his wife; she is perfectly perfunctory, believable at best. On the other hand, Timothy Spall as the village elder in Arthur is much better as you expect that from one of the best British actors working. Arthur oozes menace; he talks in an octave that matches the low level bass that runs through the majority of the films soundtrack. He was one of the most unsettling things about the film.
One of the tropes of hammer was the low budget and it worked, looking back at those films now they have a nostalgic charm. That same quality is echoed in Wake Wood. For a film made in an era that has made the impossible possible without a budget in the millions it makes something that looks so cheap indefensible. The way in which the limited budget manifests itself constantly reminds you that you are watching a film, the immersion is completely killed. So Wake Wood’s greatest strength as a Hammer film is the films greatest weakness. Other films with equally meagre budgets hide their limitations much better than this. Other than the painfully visible limitations we have a return to form for Hammer in this, a horror full of menace and moodiness. Wake Wood is a film full of ideas that ends with hope and promise.