Wednesday 19 January 2022

From the archive: "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death"

Reissued this past Halloween, 2012’s
The Woman in Black was the resurrected Hammer Films’ first genuine hit: an efficient, 1900s-set scare machine that found Daniel Radcliffe poking around one of recent cinema’s best-appointed haunted houses. Perhaps it was inevitable the studio that once gave us Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (and Dracula A.D. 1972) should respond by greenlighting a sequel, but Angel of Death finds an interesting new angle in setting the action forty years on in the Britain of the Blitz, and having a group of refugee schoolchildren hole up in Eel Marsh House.

It’s a move that at once aligns Tom Harper’s film with one of the biggest homegrown fantasy successes of recent years – we could be watching a darker Narnia – as well as such Gothic landmarks as The Innocents and The Others: where Radcliffe’s widower had to carry stretches of the first film on his own, here the focus is on a young governess (rising star Phoebe Fox) striving to protect one child in particular – the mute, scabby Edward (Oaklee Pendergast, uncommonly good) – from mounting malevolent forces.

With Harry Potter consigned to the ether, the house is arguably the real star this time around, and once Harper throws back the blackout curtains, a little more of it gets revealed: the mouldering timbers that suggest somebody’s spying from above, a previously unseen graveyard, the museum’s worth of old dolls and toys that now look like leftovers from a James Wan production.

To his credit, Harper is reluctant to deploy any of these for easy, Conjuring-like jolts: like Jack Cardiff in the atypically sunny The Innocents, he’s at least as interested in the daylight-hours plotting – the governess’s interactions with her aloof superior (Helen McCrory) and a handsome, shell-shocked officer (Jeremy Irvine, showcasing more of the quivering squarejaw he brought to last year’s The Railway Man) – as he is with things going bump in the night.

Partly, it’s a matter of wanting to revel in the traditional Britfilm craft: George Steel’s atmospherically foggy cinematography and a sharp sound mix – squelching footsteps below, squawking birds above – work overtime to position us out on the marshes. Yet at every point from an early round of Hide and Seek, Harper shows a commendable willingness to play the long game.

A search for a lock that might match a chanced-upon key, and one set-piece involving a young girl following a trail of yarn around the house build suspense, rather than squandering it every few seconds for the benefit of teenage thrill-junkies. It’s a tactic that chimes with the script’s slowburn character revelations, a shrewdly sown trail of crumbs that set us to wonder just why the governess is so caught up in her duties, and ponder the airman’s availability at a moment when all those his age were supposed to be doing their bit.

Those kids who tore up French cinemas during screenings of Annabelle will likely grow only more restless at the considered pace, but it makes for a rare modern horror movie that earns its few loud jolts. Paying off with a finale that replays Assault on Precinct 13 in an air raid shelter before heading in the direction of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, this handsome, confidently staged, genre-literate entry seems likely to sustain the franchise for the time being.

(MovieMail, December 2014)

And of course there were no further sequels. The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.

No comments:

Post a Comment