To horror fans and lovers of all things cinematic in general, the name Hammer surely needs no introduction. Similarly we can also probably skip recounting the convoluted history of rumours, hints and false dawns which preceded the resurrection of this classic English studio. For after a somewhat shaky start with a web based feature Beyond the Rave, Hammer Films are indeed back in business at long. And while their dark thriller The Resident, which I have yet to see, has received mixed reviews at best, Let Me In garnered much praise, despite being a English language remake of a foreign film and especially as in this case they were remaking a movie that many regard as a modern day classic, Let The Right One In.
However while we were all pleased that Hammer was back, there was some murmuring that as The Resident and Let Me Me were both set in the United States, this might be just a revival in name only. But just in time to quell such doubts comes the release of Wake Wood, a full blooded supernatural horror set in Ireland, and steeped in classic Hammer tropes such as rural magic and dark forests.
Wake Wood actually began a co-production between Dublin’s Fantastic Films and Sweden’s Solid Entertainment and while looking for further production partners, the script then titled The Wake Wood found its way to the newly resurrected Hammer. And having seen that the screenplay was exactly the kind of horror the new incarnation of the classic horror studio was interested in pursuing, they swiftly jumped onboard. As Simon Oakes, CEO of Hammer said -
Wake Wood is very much in the tradition of some of the great Hammer stories of old, including the Frankenstein films. A compelling and horrifying dilemma is at its heart: ordinary people must make a Faustian pact to hold onto what they hold most dear, with terrifying consequences. The fact that David Keating and team wanted to honour, in tone, some of the great horror films of the past was also immediately appealing.A bold statement certainly, however as we shall see, these compliments are not unmerited, as a quick look at the plot synopsis reveals.
The story of Wake Wood is as follows. After the tragic death of their young daughter Alice (Ella Connolly), Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) move to the sleepy village of Wake Wood. However the village has a secret – under the leadership of Arthur (Timothy Spall) the villagers conduct rituals which may raise the dead back to life. However this resurrection is only temporary, lasting only three days and there are certain rules that must be observed. Naturally Alice is resurrected, but as any horror fan can guess things don’t go well...
With the country setting, the aura of old magic, and the returning dead, coupled with moral dilemmas and lead characters who are ordinary adults rather cardboard teens in perils, it’s instantly clear that this isn’t the usual horror fare that is idly churned out for the adolescent audience. And as well sitting comfortably with The Witches and Plague of the Zombies, it also addresses the age old themes explored by many a Hammer classic; the price of immortality and the cost of resurrection.
Now obviously the film buffs out there will spot that the storyline sounds like an amalgamation of The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now. For while the two aforementioned iconic chillers are obvious reference points Wake Wood isn’t just some half baked concoction splicing the two together for Wake Wood also references many other literate horror of years gone by.
Writer Brendan McCarthy is a self confessed horror aficionado and I didn’t need the press release blurb to tell me that – watching this movie that it obvious that this tale was crafted by a man in love with the genre. There’s a host of other references and allusions to other literate horrors in this film; the plot has pleasing echoes of both WW Jacobs’ classic short tale The Monkey’s Paw and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and the starting situation of a young vet and his wife moving to the countryside also recalls Nigel Kneale’s Baby from the TV series Beasts and to a lesser extent his TV play Murrain. Thematically there’s the eerie pastoral atmosphere and folk magic of 70s Brit horrors such as Blood on Satan’s Claw and Cry of the Banshee, while stylistically there’s the kind of vivid colours and inventive cinematography that we associate with Italian masters like Argento or Bava. And if all of those weren’t enough, there’s a legion of spooky child films to consider, from the well known (The Omen) to the rather obscure (Alice Sweet Alice aka Communion), not to mention a whole graveyard of movies dealing with the troubles invoked by the return of deceased loved ones.
And again I’d stress that Wake Wood isn’t just a patchwork creation. And while there are many parallels one may draw with other works, this movie has a story and an atmosphere all of its own. McCarthy and director David Keating spent a long time refining and polishing the script, and all this care and attention shows on screen. It’s a tightly told tale, balancing striking and unusual imagery with very strong characters, and while it serves up the expected chills and blood, these are woven around a powerful emotional drama.
The cast are uniformly superb. Aidan Gillen is magnetic as ever as Patrick and Eva Birthistle delivers a performance of equal intensity; together they create a vivid picture of a couple struggling under the weight of tragedy. Of course Timothy Spall is as excellent as you’d expect in the role of the leader of the mysterious town of Wake Wood and there’s excellent support from Ruth McCabe and Amelia Crowley. And Ella Connolly is simply marvellous as the returning Alice, putting in a finely nuanced performance that steers well clear of the usual silent and staring spooky child.
This is a very capable cast that really brings the characters to life and let their emotions light up the screen. And they deserve high praise for this script isn’t heavy on dialogue; there’s no endless talking heads or clunky exposition. For Wake Wood is a film that tells much of its story visually. Now most actors worth their salt can deliver dramatic exchanges and speeches well enough, but you really need an exceptional cast to carry a story that isn’t reliant on the words it puts in the characters’ mouths.
Of course director David Keating is equally deserving of kudos. To begin with you’d never guess Wake Wood was a modestly budgeted feature, because it looks simply fantastic. This is a gorgeously composed film, filled with beautiful shots and creative set ups. He understands that golden rule of cinema that it’s better to show rather than tell, but he also demonstrates a real knack for building consistent chains of imagery. For example, early on in the movie there is a scene of what I’ll only describe as very graphic veterinary practice. Now at first glance, this would appear to be splatterising the everyday business of a farm; indulging in that old horror movie trick of drenching even mundane scenes in lashings of blood. But as the film progresses you realise that it is the first instance of a recurring set of symbols; themed imagery that pervades a variety of scenes which are not only visually striking but resonate with both the thrust of the narrative and its underlying themes.
Considering that film is primarily a visual medium, it isn’t often we find this kind of orchestrated imagery and metaphor outside of art house flicks, and it’s rarer to still to discover this very literary use of repeated symbols and motifs in a movie that is so tightly paced and thrilling.
Wake Wood is highly accomplished for a second feature - his first feature Last of the High Kings is now high on my ‘must watch’ list - and Keating is definitely a name to watch. Avoiding the bloating that comes with a two hour run time, Wake Wood plays out at a finely measured pace, building up an eerie atmosphere while at the same time keeping the story unfolding in an exciting and engaging manner. And while a jaded old horror fan like myself could see where the storyline was going, Wake Wood never feels like it’s just going through the same old predictable motions. Firstly all the visual flourishes Keating employs keeps everything fresh and McCarthy’s script is admirably subtle allowing the physical performances and imagery tell the tale. And together the script and direction cast a beguiling spell; although any one familiar with the horror genre can guess that Alice’s resurrection is going to lead to all manner of trouble, in this case rather resulting in the tedium of predictability, there’s a growing cloud of dread as you anticipate the inevitable resulting unpleasantness.
In its own way, Wake Wood is a quiet triumph. And while gorehounds may feel there’s not enough splattery carnage and fear purists might lament that it’s not more purely psychological in its horrors, personally I found the balance of blood and atmospherics in Wake Wood to be a welcome change. Too often these days, there is a tendency to think that a good horror film should be firmly situated in either the red drenched territory of Herchell Gordon Lewis or the misty shadowlands to Val Lewton, and forget that there is a rich middle ground where blood and chills can compliment each other - indeed many of classic horrors, in particular the Hammer/Amicus’Tigon axis and the Italian maestros, were more than happy to creep out their audiences while not being afraid of splashing out the Kensington gore.
Equalising these polarities takes as much skill and vision as delivering the extremes of subtle terror and graphic revulsion. In lesser hands, Wake Wood could have been rather choppy, however the carefully built atmosphere, consistent characterisation and smooth story telling unites the seemingly opposite approaches. And the superb score by Michael Convertino not only brings all the different elements into unison but is tremendously evocative in it’s own right, working perfectly with the imagery on screen to tell an unsettling haunting tale.
Wake Wood is a film that will repay repeated viewing; on a first watch one may wish there was more detail in the plot filling in the background to the story; for example it would be nice to know more about the history and origin of the ritual. However as is often the case, sometimes a mystery is best left hanging in the air, and certainly Wake Wood would not benefit from adding chunks of exposition for it’s the kind of movie which is enhanced by leaving tantalising questions unanswered. The story doesn’t need a cipher to pop up and spell out that the ritual dates back to ancient times; all the clues necessary for an audience to draw this conclusion are there in onscreen. Subsequent rewatchs reveal the subtleties of this approach. And of course leaving such imaginative spaces for an audience to explore will ensure that Wake Wood will no doubt inspire a cult following of its own.
Not only is it a love letter to the past classics of the horror genre, but Wake Wood is also a much needed shot in the arm for contemporary chillers. While some may be disappointed that Wake Wood is neither the goriest or most terrifying film, that would be to overlook it huge strengths. For not only is it highly entertaining, it’s refreshingly intelligent and wonderfully performed - virtues all too rare in contemporary horror offerings. Although it’s not a film that going to please every one, I suspect that many horror fans will find much to love and cherish, and will enjoy regular return trips to Wake Wood.
And certainly it’s exactly the kind of film that a resurrected Hammer should be making. Keating and McCarthy have delivered a beautifully mesmerising movie, and it’s not just an a high satisfying and entertaining horror flick, Wake Wood is a glowing example of fine film making for any genre.
JIM MOON, 21st April 2011