When Hammer, legendary film studio and proponents of the great Christopher Lee as Dracula, first announced plans to adapt popular stage show The Woman In Black (itself an adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel of the same name) for the screen, it seemed a strange match. However, the flick, starring Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role, was a surprise hit, scaring audiences silly across the world while launching Harry Potter’s adult career in the process.
A follow-up seemed like a done deal and now, a mere two years later, the titular lady is back for more in what has explicitly been described by director Tom Harper (taking over the reigns from James Watkins) as absolutely not a sequel, in spite of the number in its title. Rather, this is another tale in the, presumably, horrible history of poor ol’ child-killing Jennette Humphreys.
Watkins had experience with darker fare, having helmed the disturbing Eden Lake previously, along with another sequel, The Descent Part 2. However, relative newcomer Harper does a fine job of setting the scene firmly away from the previous instalment by moving the action to war-torn London, out of which a group of schoolchildren must flee alongside a couple of token adults to, above all places, Eel Marsh House.
To be fair, it’s established early on that the house needs some urgent attention but, given that there are bombs raining down and one child, in particular, has just lost both his parents, there isn’t really another option. Phoebe Fox takes charge of the group as kindly teacher Eve, who begins to feel a foreboding presence long before even the children, while Jeremy Irvine does well in an underwritten role as local serviceman and all-round good guy, Harry, who believes Eve when nobody else will.
As with the stage show, The Woman In Black is all about atmosphere. And, thanks to a near-constant veil of fog, there’s a sense throughout Angel Of Death that the light isn’t just difficult to see, it’s downright non-existent. The film is bathed in a palette of dark blues, greys and blacks, a sense of dread bleeding into every corner of the frame so that even in daylight there’s little brightness. Staying faithful to the play, the woman is glimpsed as opposed to fully shown, which adds to the eeriness of the piece, while foregoing the need to utilise dodgy CGI to make her look more ghostly (see: Mama).
Unlike its predecessor, which was a bit like a creaky old ghost train, Angel Of Death is a more grim affair, not least because there are several unsuspecting kids for Jennette to pick off as she pleases, as opposed to just one (and Radcliffe). There’s also an interesting juxtaposition between the real-life horrors of war and the otherworldly threat of the woman. Each character has been damaged in some way or another by what’s happening on the streets, and they react accordingly as things begin to take a turn for the worse.
Oaklee Pendergast is astounding as the mute Edward, an orphan who communicates by writing messages down on scraps of paper – a clever narrative tool in itself that is used sparingly, to avoid cliché. The promotional poster for Angel Of Death recalls The Babadook and it’s interesting to note the treatment of disturbed children in this film as opposed to the sleeper hit of last year. While Eva panders to Edward, the tough headmistress (played by the permanently tight-lipped Helen Mc Crory) scolds her for doing so and it is no surprise, then, when it is Edward whom the woman chooses for her own evil misdeeds, while Eva finds herself powerless to stop her.
The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death is a profoundly frightening, relentlessly spooky film that wears how old-fashioned and traditional it is as a badge of honour. In a lot of ways, it’s the antithesis to the ghastly Insidious: Chapter 2, a film so desperate to root itself in reality it forgot to make us care about its characters, or indeed its villains. This is a Hammer film through and through, complete with a wonderfully creaky, violin-heavy score and a solitude to it that is so chilly you can almost feel it in your bones. It feeds off the quiet, with footsteps echoing and breaths caught as stomachs tighten and eyes widen.
Not all of it works, with the introductory chapter, set largely in a destroyed London that looks far more like a set than intended, followed by an exposition-heavy train journey, a chore. However, once we get that first glimpse of Eel Marsh House looming on the horizon, all is forgiven. The location itself is the stuff of nightmares and, even if the old “quiet-quiet-BANG” trick is used here and there, the frights aren’t quite as predictable as we’ve come to expect, and the tension is so nail-biting at times, it barely matters when it’s a false alarm, because you’ll probably jump anyway.
There are some incredibly striking visuals, and a number of interesting set-pieces that, thankfully, don’t rely on what worked so well in the first film, such as the creaking rocking chair, which features only momentarily. A sequence in a decaying hospital ward is hideous, almost Silent Hill like in its execution, while another, which sees the children stranded in a war bunker as Eva demands they all hold hands and close their eyes, is so traumatising it’s difficult not to follow suit yourself.
This is the first horror release of 2015, so it’s probably going to be judged more harshly than it deserves but, especially in comparison to others of its ilk (Insidious: Chapter 3 is on the way later on this year), The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death is an engrossing, effective and impressively old-fashioned picture. The tension is painful at times, the scares come hard, fast and often unexpectedly and the central performances are strong. A more adult take on the mythos than its predecessor, it’s grim, brave and nail-bitingly tense.
As has, sadly, become customary, the trailer spoils a few of the biggest scares so, if possible, avoid it and go in green. Angel Of Death is the kind of film best enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the horrors contained within, and viewed through your fingers as you try desperately not to look away.
WICKED RATING: [usr 8]
Director: Tom Harper
Writer(s): Jon Croker, Susan Hill (novel)
Stars: Helen Mc Crory, Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Oaklee Pendergast
Studio/ Production Co: Hammer Films
Length: 98 mins