“How long has your daughter been in the ground? Patrick … how long has your daughter been dead and buried?”
With a mood that arrives out of Don’t Look Now by way of The Wicker Man, but a story that is more spiritually connected with Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried, David Keating’s rural chiller, Wake Wood, is part of the newly revitalised Hammer’s double-pronged attack on the box office at the moment. Their psycho thriller The Resident is also checking-in at a theatre at around the same time, further establishing the studio’s bloody resurrection. But in a rather weird marketing twist, this strongly emotional spine-tingler is also putting in an appearance on DVD only a few days after its UK cinematic debut, on the 28th March. And it is this standard disc that we are looking at here. Alas, there has been no Blu-ray scheduled as yet.
Whilst those highly stylish and unusual genre classics mentioned above certainly have some influence over Wake Wood’s measured and character-anchored narrative, as well as the treacherous bad tidings of Stephen King's none-too-dissimilar Pets’ Semetary, the story does strike out across melancholy fields of its own. Having lost their only daughter, Alice, in a nasty dog-attack (that we get to see, as well, folks), bereaved parents Louise (Eva Birthistle) and Patrick (Aiden Gillen) relocate to an isolated rural hamlet in Ireland to attempt to start over. Louise takes a job in the local chemist shop in the village, whilst Patrick assumes the vital role of the vet for the farming community. Months go by, but the agony of their loss does not recede. Their very relationship appears on the verge of collapse. There is no love lost between the couple, but the abyss left by the passing of Alice seems too great for their affections for one another to form a bridge across. The pleasant advice from some genuinely caring locals to simply “Make another baby to love” is no comfort for them, for Louise cannot have another child.
But then a series of strange events takes place that leads them to believe there may be another way to heal their wounds, and enable them to move on, emotionally. For, on one weird night, after their car has broken down on a country lane, the couple witness the apparent resurrection of one of the recently deceased locals during a bizarre and frightening pagan ritual of blood and fire. For Wake Wood has a secret, you see. Presided over by self-styled town elder, Arthur (Timothy Spall, who clearly gives up on his Irish accent after the first couple of minutes), the residents have an ancient practice of sorcery that enables them to bring a loved one back from the grave for a blissful and comforting three days in which they can say their final goodbyes and adjust to the loss. The time-limit is set in stone, and at midnight on the final day the returnee is then delivered back into the ground. Realising that their secret has been broached, but understanding the sad predicament that they are in, Arthur offers his arcane services to the couple and, after some understandably moralistic umming and ahhing, they concede to his plan.
All things come at a price, however.
The process of resurrection must conform to certain very strict rules. Keeping a Magwai in Gremlins carried dire consequences if you got him wet and fed him after midnight. You'd have to be a dummy to play the demonic recording of Deadite incantations in The Evil Dead. And, of course, horror movies in general couldn't survive much beyond their first act if those tried-and-trusted rules compiled by Wes Craven in Scream weren't habitually broken all the time. So, in Wake Wood, if you want the bittersweet beauty of a lost spirit returned to you, you must ensure that they have been in the ground for no more than twelve months; that you do not allow them to leave the borders of the town once they have come back to you; that they must be ceremonially returned to the afterlife when the three days are up; and that once the deal has been struck, you are bound-over to spend the rest of your days in Wake Wood … and never leave it.
Naturally, things don't go according to plan … and when little Alice is brought back to her overjoyed parents, something altogether more sinister ensues and a series of malevolent events take place that rock the fabric of Wake Wood. In the film adaptation of King's Pet Semetary, one-time Herman Munster, Fred Gwynne, so tellingly put it … “Sometimes, dead is better.” And he's not wrong, of course.
With such a sucker-punching Monkey's Paw-style scenario, Wake Wood confronts a terrible moral dilemma. You don't need to be a parent to understand the pain and selfish obsession that would grip you if you suddenly found a way to resurrect a loved one, but there is a quantifiable gut-reaction that occurs when you think of it as being your own young child that you are hauling back for a final farewell. The rights and wrongs of such a fantastical deal open up a literal Pandora's Box of conscience-rattling conundrums and, working from the original story from Brendan McCarthy, who would go on to write the screenplay with him, Keating never forgets that intense personal and shared anguish comes first. Without a considered empathy with the mourning parents, or an understanding of just why a small community would seek such a risky and theologically awkward practice, the story would just founder on the rocks of utter contrivance.
Both the leads acquit themselves very well. Aiden Gillen, from Queer As Folk and The Wire, contains his emotions well, realistically depicting a man who is trying his best to put the bravest of faces on things. Although all the brooding intensity and dark edgy stares are intact, he avoids that typical male cliché by sheer force of internal angst. You can just feel the turmoil and the distrust that is welling up inside him. Wisely, he is not allowed to play the action man, either. In an American take on the story, Patrick would have been able to batter his way through the final act and to have been a steadfast pillar of strength that we could all cling to. It is refreshing, then, that when Gillan actually does issue a threat to all-comers, we neither believe that he could get away with it, nor do we see him attempt to.
Eva Birthistle really should have seen all these troubles coming. Having appeared in the series Wake The Dead, alarm-bells should have been ringing, but to then find herself at the mercy of evil tots in 2008's likeably daft The Children, she seems to have been heading quite deliberately towards this doom-laden tale. With a look of both Samantha Janus and Glynis Barber, you would expect Birthistle to be some kind of babe-bimbo running and screaming her way through the woods, but although this sort of thing does actually occur, she is very much the emotional backbone of the tale. Whereas Gillen stows his feelings away in the recesses of his mind, Birthistle wears them on her sleeve. But she is not a collapse-at-a-moment's-notice cry-baby either. In fact, she ensures that Louise hails from much stronger stuff. When she realises that something is amiss in the town, early on, she goes after the target of her suspicions and physically ensures that she gets some answers. Her defence of Alice is also credible, that mother's protective instinct as indomitable as is should be, but also malleable enough to transform into something else when the time comes. Birthistle has that haunted look of emptiness about her that totally invests us in her suffering and her determination to do the unthinkable, come what may.
Great Irish support comes from Ruth McCabe, who is able to curve intimate grief and reluctant compassion into cold threat and intimidation in the blink of an eye, and Amelia Crowley, another whose own loss and personal concerns for Louise come to be construed as being something else entirely. The rest of the yokels convince, too, especially when they are engaged in chanting and swaying during some of the town's less Tourist Board endorsed activities. And the enormously prolific Spall is also on fine form. Taking the resurrection-baton from Jack Albertson's magic mortician in Dead & Buried, he plays the hamlet's esoteric patriarch, a man with a gift that is, for the most part, benevolent … but agreeably tainted with the knowledge of a necromancer. Strolling around in his tweeds and waving to the newcomers from across the fields seems welcoming enough, but his control over the province hinges upon a dreadful power that is probably heaven-sent to some, but a trial-by-fire for others. In this respect, he is also reminiscent of the warlock, Karswell, played by the wonderful Niall MacGinnis in Jacques Tourneur's classic Night Of The Demon. It is not hard to imagine Christopher Lee in the role, but since he has been snaffled-up by Hammer for their other offering this month, as the father of The Resident's psycho landlord, it is great to see that the studio's long-lasting prince of darkness is still keeping his hand in, as it were.
But I have to say that I wasn't convinced by little Ella Connelly's portrayal of Alice. Now, I know this was a very difficult role to undertake, and you have to admire the girl's unmistakable commitment during some of the more unpleasant and controversial scenes, but I found that I was slightly taken out of the film whenever she was on-screen. Child-performers can be many things, of course. The “plucky” and annoying type we see in Jurassic Park. The scary man-child from The Sixth Sense, and the mature beyond their years type War Of The Worlds. And the simply mesmerising, as witnessed with Kirsten Dunst in Interview With The Vampire. Connelly is younger again, so I guess we must make more allowances, but although she nails the darker, more ghoulish side of things in a couple of sequences, I felt that all the sympathy and sorrow we experienced throughout her parents' harrowing plight came undone once we saw her interact with them even during their relatively “normal” first day. Perhaps, this is a good thing, though. If Connelly had been more credible, then Wake Wood would almost certainly have been considerably more upsetting to watch, and the finite balance between pity and horror would have been lost.
A simply superb element is the actual ritual of bringing the dead back for their final three-day farewell. With a startling blend of voodoo and surprisingly plausible archaic Druid-style shenanigans, the process of resurrection is creepy, messy and wonderfully haunting. There is a fantastic pre-ritual stage that demands certain questions being asked of those seeking to regain their loved one that involves rattling the answers across a rather bizarre Celtic abacus, and the sense of mystery that this evokes is quite fascinating. If the film was a huge success, I could imagine this occult contraption finding its way into a string of spin-off merchandise.
There is a rich and haunting, lament-filled score from David Newton. He weaves an ambient, gently percussive spell over the proceedings with metronomic, though still inherently folky themes, capturing the right sense of location and bygone attitudes and splicing-in the more contemporary beat of hypnotic tones and incessant, inescapable dread. Despite some pretty obvious day-for-night photography (some early scenes with Gillen and Birthistle prowling about the woods and meadows with a a big torch look quite silly because of this), Keating is able to deliver some exquisitely unsettling imagery too. The little twig-crafted necklace that the dead must wear as they make their way back to their resting place becomes an acute item of heart-clutching animosity, especially when we are told that it can serve to comfort them in case they get distressed about going back. All of a sudden, you can imagine the real horror of what is happening. How can saying goodbye to those whose passing you had previously missed actually be any easier? A street procession of can-rattling mourners strikes an unnerving note, and it is about time that someone found a way to make those wind-turbines that speckle countryside, and the even the sea, like Martian war-machines-in-waiting, look appreciably macabre. Whilst the notion of two outsiders incurring the wrath of deep-seated rural superstition actually evokes something of a Straw Dogs-like us against them conflict, the country house that has become a troubled home to our protagonists takes on the vibe of the manor we see in The Others. There might not be any proper ghosts gadding about, but the sense of creepy goings-on and the unwanted visitations of the odd locals, who seem able to access this dubious sanctuary at will, reminds of the paranoia that Nicole Kidman went through in Alejandro Amenabar's excellent hair-raiser. Even Timothy Spall, whose face got all mutated in 1988's Dream Demon, and his head mashed in Sweeney Todd, is lent a satanic nobility when seen peering through torch-light or up through the gap in the bannisters at a cowering Louise. There is a neat and somewhat gruelling grave-robbing scene too, but Keating is not above drenching it in an atmospheric and symbolic downpour.
Where the film comes unstuck is with its swing-shift of tone from supernatural moral conflict to the more humdrum zombified avenger phase. I was left with the impression that two separate ideas which do, admittedly, normally go hand-in-rotting-hand, had been bolted together. The resulting concoction, whilst still quite gripping and thought-provoking, descends all too easily in genre formula, even down to the last minute twist, which I found quite hackneyed. Keating can't resist splashing some claret around, beautifully bringing the spirit of old Hammer back like a returnee, itself, but asides from a rather unpleasant death-by-bull, the explicit violence and horror that comes along in the last third is, if I'm honest, neither shocking, nor really all that necessary. Keating, and his Irish/Swedish producers seem to want to satisfy everyone at once, but Wake Wood is not a film that actually needs any savagery to get its point across. And the random slaughter that takes place is ill-fitting, illogical and, sadly, doesn't the deliver the gory goods that devoted gore-hounds require. Indeed, that 18-certificate seems a little misplaced, too. People tend to merely bite on the blood-capsule and spew the stuff down their chins. A little smattering of CG wound-reversal doesn't look very effective either, I'm afraid. So don't go in expecting a blood-bath.
Ultimately, this is a reasonably smart horror film that, whilst definitely not as good as a lot of the critical blurb that adorns the poster would have you believe, nor even half as clever as some writers have tried to claim, is still highly potent, dark and efficiently told. The emphasis on character is certainly commendable, and both Gillen and Birthistle are very effective despite the now-ten-a-penny arc they go through (let's face it, a great many couples in TV Drama-land have gone through just such traumatic teething-troubles with spooky kids, themselves, so this is really nothing new) and the mood is agreeably serious and sombre. However, a rash of final act antics let the side down, and the film's carefully crafted power becomes diluted with unwarranted genre bullet-points. Thus, what could have been a tremendous new-born Hammer falls several bloody notches below where it could have potentially staked its proper claim. Still, Wake Wood continues to pump fresh blood into a brand-name that thoroughly deserves to take the genre by the throat once again, and to break taboos like it once did with gusto.
Creepy, eerie and provocative, Wake Wood is no classic, but it shows that Hammer is taking its rebirth as seriously as so many of us want it to.
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