Dir: Tom Harper
Written by: Jon Croker and Susan Hill (story)
Starring: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Oaklee Pendergast and Adrian Rawlins
Running Time –98 mins
During WWII, a group of children and their two teachers are evacuated to the run down and dilapidated Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford. It soon becomes apparent that the house is still home to a previous resident with designs on one of the children, the ghostly Woman in Black.
With the first WIB film doing a mostly admirable job of recapturing the essence of what made Hammer Horror so great and staying faithful (until the silly ending) to the original novel, it was hard to really see the need for a follow-up. With the novel’s author, Susan Hill, on hand for the story, this lessened the feel of a cash-grabbing franchise and it is true to say that there certainly was scope to bring back the icon of spookiness that is the Woman in Black herself.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise that the film does have a fairly decent stab at trying to keep the classic spirit of Hammer alive from the first film. Despite the fact that it has already had the perfect setting laid out on a plate, director, Tom Harper, clearly understands just how crucial it is to create the perfect atmosphere. The over-bearing, impenetrably thick fog still lies heavily over the gloriously Gothic architecture, setting imaginations alight as to what terrors are lurking inside it. It is also fascinating to see how beautifully the film captures the oppressively vast Nine Lives causeway and is able to deftly counter balance this with the narrow and shadowed claustrophobic corridors of Eel Marsh House itself.
The decision to keep the WIB as almost a piece of the scenery is also a master-stroke. Over-exposure to anything will lessen the fear-factor and it is an astute trick that for much of the film, she merely glimpsed out of the corner of the screen or blended into the shadows. This adds the extra fear that she could be literally anywhere, watching and supplements the air of tension and dread whenever there is a night-time scene. To those who have seen the first film and the stage play, the most terrifying element in the rocking chair is still present and still just as capable at causing an eruption of goosebumps. It says a great deal to the credit of the film that even the sickeningly endless noise that signifies that it is going to appear soon still makes it just as terrifying, even when you know what is coming.
It has to be noted that a key area in which the film falls short is in not having a strong enough lead for the audience to identify with. It is true that actress, Phoebe Fox, is not given an easy task to make us care, due to incredibly clunky and dull dialogue. Her performance, much like the rest of the cast, is entirely forgettable and more akin to the stiff upper lip-ness for a particularly spooky episode of Downton Abbey.
Conviction is, perhaps, the key thing that’s lacking, few of the cast seem to be properly terrified of the events happening around them and the budding romance between Fox and an on auto-pilot, Jeremy Irvine, is about as scintillating as two slices of bread lying on top one another.
One of the scariest elements of the first film was the total sense of isolation that we as an audience experienced with Radcliffe. Alone and cut off from the mainland with only a horrific supernatural presence for company, this feeling is lost completely when there are so many characters on the island and in the house. The film also makes a huge mistake in moving some of the action to an airfield and its underground bunker. This completely dispenses of the gloriously creepy setting of Eel Marsh House in favour of a bland setting that does not match up to the film’s primary focus of being a classic and contained ghost story.
The fact that we as an audience are now aware of the Woman in Black’s motivation from the first film also diminishes the wonderful sense of mystery that was slowly unravelled as the terror mounted. With what little distinctly uninteresting back story that is given to the two leads, it is fairly simple to figure out in precisely which direction the film is going and ultimately, their fates. The tremendously Gothic sense of loss of grievance so well conveyed by Radcliffe is all but non-existent here as the two lifeless performances, combined with the wooden dialogue does little to win over any sympathy.
The sequel certainly did not learn from the mistakes of its predecessor. The final act of the film takes a huge nose dive after it had done such an admirable job at replicating the original’s superbly chilling atmosphere. With a load of expensive-looking pyrotechnics being set off in the airfield and a splurge of CGI nonsense come the final confrontation, there is a tremendous sense of frustration at the fact that the film almost couldn’t seem to resist the urge to show off its budget. With a pathetic repeated use of a stinger ending, both WIB films unfortunately seem to have lacked the courage to do something different and daring, when there was ample opportunity, and instead go for the easy, modern option and as a result, end up feeling quite pedestrian.
Certainly much better than could have been anticipated, however, a lack of properly defined characters and over-reliance on cheap jump scares sadly prohibits the film from matching the Gothic grace of the first film.