JANUARY 1, 2015
I enjoyed the 2012 Woman In Black, but didn't think it needed a sequel; I certainly didn't think it needed one three years later when the film hasn't exactly remained at the top of our memories - when is the last time you talked about it prior to seeing a poster or trailer for The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death? But for what it's worth, it's a perfectly decent followup, offering up the same sort of old-school, fog machine drenched atmosphere and low key thrills that the original did, albeit without that film's primary selling point: Harry Potter as an adult! So what does it bring to the table?
Well, ironically, the proof that they can franchise this thing for quite a while if they want, as rather than make a direct followup (which would be difficult, given the original's ending) they have jumped ahead 40 years and introduced an entirely new set of characters heading to the house. Daniel Radcliffe's character isn't even given the usual "non returning cast member reference" of a story in a newspaper or whatever, and in fact they repeat enough of the backstory that you can watch this one on its own without being lost. I'm not sure if they do as good of a job explaining the current/tide that turns the area into an island every now and then, but otherwise it's as if it was the first film in a series, instead of a sequel (which makes the "2" in the title - a first for Hammer! - rather odd). And since it works, they have license to continue switching time periods for future installments if this one's a hit - the 70s, the present day, even a (sigh) prequel would be acceptable as they've wisely cemented the series as one about the title character instead of any particular hero.
This one's about a lovely schoolteacher named Eve (Phoebe Fox) who is tasked with taking a group of children (whose parents are either fighting in or killed because of World War II) up to the house, as it will serve as a makeshift shelter/school that will hopefully escape enemy bombs. The most recent addition to the group is Edward, whose parents were killed the night before and has become mute as a result, so of course he will be the one the evil ghost will fixate on once they all arrive. Eve takes a particular liking to him as well, for reasons that are obvious but still doled out over time throughout the movie. This is a plot machination that I never quite understood (and was demolished by Film Crit Hulk a couple years back), in that the screenwriters confusingly withhold information about the hero of their movie until the halfway point or so, even though it informs their actions. It's a perfectly good device for secondary characters; indeed, there's a nice scene later in the film where we learn why Eve's boss (the school's headmistress) is such a pain in the ass - Eve learns along with us, and thus it works perfectly. But why do we need a similar reveal for Eve, when she's our surrogate in the narrative? We should know this sort of stuff up front.
Anyway, with 7-8 children and a ghost who makes its victims kill themselves, it's not a spoiler to say that this gets into some rather grim territory, including one such death that's on-screen. Ryan Turek of Shock Till You Drop (well, formerly - he's got a new gig at Blumhouse!) had tipped me off before I saw it, so I found this stuff easier to digest than I would have assumed, as having a child of my own has made me more sensitive to such things (I probably won't even be able to watch Pet Sematary ever again). It helps that the first kid to be offed is a total asshole, and his target (the mute kid, of course) vaguely looked what I imagine my son will look like when he's 6 or 7 - serves you right, asshole kid! I do wish the movie had spent more time with the children instead of the older characters, as we've already covered similar territory with The Awakening, but it's hard to argue wanting to point the camera at Ms. Fox, and rounding out the kids might have made the movie too upsetting when they're put in peril.
But the other benefit is that it might have given the movie more of its own identity. The World War II stuff helps, of course, but once they're in the house (which doesn't appear to have been touched since Radcliffe's character left it) it's hard to remember it's supposed to be the 1940s anyway, which is probably why there's a late-game diversion to an airfield (and increased screentime for the male lead, a fighter pilot with his own reveal). But beyond that, it treads closer to remake than sequel at times, with Eve uncovering the same things about the Woman in Black's tragic past, and even a few of the same damn jump scares! Another bird whacks into a window (with accompanying exaggerated sound FX), and new director Tom Harper shares his predecessor's penchant for closeups of creepy, half broken toys. Again, you can go into this one blind and not get lost, but at times it almost seems like it might be beneficial to do so, as you wouldn't experience so much deja vu.
Then again, after a couple years' worth of found footage and CGI driven supernatural fare, it's refreshing to see a period, low-key piece like this. Hammer never made any haunting type films in its heyday (Night Creatures was a half-exception; the villains were flesh and blood guys posing as ghosts), but the atmosphere alone is very much at home with their older (read: best) stuff - the fog machines, the period setting (their 1950s and 60s films were usually set in the late 19th century; now in 2013 they make one for the 40s - again around 70 years prior), and (unlike the first) a lovely young lady in a major role. And while the neighboring town's presence has been greatly reduced, but they still find enough to do for a strong supporting cast, including actor Adrian Rawlins, who played the lead role in the original British TV production of the first story. There's no jump scare as good as the one in his version (ghost above the bed), but it's still a nice tip of the hat to have him around, and thankfully without any winks (at least, none that I detected).
I also liked that it didn't pull the usual sequel shit of retconning too much information. Especially with haunting movie sequels, there's almost always a character coming in to explain how part of what we learned before was wrong, or "There was ANOTHER child!" or whatever, because the first movie explained what needed to be done to save the day and now they need an excuse for the ghost to be up and about again. But no, it's pretty much as we remember it: the kid drowned, the mom grieved, and now she's a vengeful ghost. This is why changing time periods is helpful - it allows them to have it both ways: a clean slate for some things, but no worry about messing up existing continuity on the other. Hopefully, if the series continues (the theater had a good sized crowd, for what it's worth) they will continue using this approach, rather than dig themselves into a hole like the Paranormal Activity series has done. I get why true anthology films rarely catch on, but there should be nothing to stop them from making a series of mostly unconnected films about a particular house and the spirit that inhabits it, using whatever period they like to tell their otherwise original tale. Just try to cut back on the fake scares, yeah?
What say you?