By Kyle G. King. In 2012 Hammer Film Productions had surprising financial success with a movie adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story, The Woman in Black: an early twentieth century tale of an anguished mother who unfairly lost her child and after her death, sets out to murder the rest of the local children in a deranged state of otherworldly turmoil. With $127 million worldwide, it shouldn’t come as any surprise to this generation of movie-goers that a sequel was quickly penned and put into production. The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death forgoes Daniel Radcliffe as the lead (SPOILER ALERT: he didn’t survive the first film) yet takes us back to Eel Marsh anyway, with a longer lineup of children for The Woman in Black to terrorize and slaughter.
Forty years after the events of the first film – placing it onto the juicy period setting of World War II – we meet Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox, with the soft, lovely features of a slightly younger Mary Louise Parker) as she hides in an underground train station with the rest of her town as a thundering air raid clamors above. The war is taking its toll on London and Eve alike, and Eve, along with her headmistress Jean (Helen McCrory), take action to evacuate a small group of half a dozen children to a safer place far away from the danger of a major city under siege. Prepare to swallow a rather large pill of disbelief as the two purportedly smart women choose a house outside Cryphin Gifford (a town with a mysterious history for missing or otherwise murdered children) as their place for refuge against the dangers of war.
Cryphin Gifford is a far different place than depicted in the first film: it now sulks in disarray with little to be discovered or seen (its only inhabitant seems to be a crazed, blind man), but past the abandoned town and over a winding road that floods at high tide Eve, Jean, and the children arrive to their supposed safe haven at Eel Marsh House and settle into their decrepit new surroundings of misguided sanctuary.
There is a certain formula to be observed within nearly every American horror film of the past forty years or so. Screenwriter Jon Crocker and director Tom Harper show that they both understand this formula sells and that they are not up to the task of challenging it. What stood out in the original Woman In Black was beautifully foggy English countryside cinematography, a well-acted cast, and the appalling nerve of showing children being murdered on screen. The sequel offers all the same flavors – with exceptionally impressive camera work from George Steel – as well as a little more drama to move the story along at a better pace, and far more innocent children for the titular ghoul to have her hands at.
While the backdrop of World War II offers many classically rich visuals and themes, it’s disappointing that almost none of The Woman in Black 2 finds any originality outside of what’s expected. The subplot love story between Eve and Harry, an airforce pilot she meets on the train to Cryphin Gifford, doesn’t find much ground for itself to stand on (and one can’t shake the taste of a student film rendition of Casablanca). The film does give its adult players a scene of back story to show what wartime has done to each character, a level of characterization which is usually ignored within the horror genre, and The Woman in Black 2 very nearly ties all its characters’ fears into the story and setting. However by the time the climax and resolution arrive these fears are not ironed out neatly (especially Harry’s), which is far more frustrating and scary than the haunting itself ever turns out to be.
Over the backdrop of supernatural horror and war-torn England, The Woman in Black 2 introduces and relates some seemingly smart ideas: the maternal guilt behind protecting innocents, and the wearying cultivation of fear from war as it relates to the unseen enemy; yet these vivid concepts are ultimately traded off for time with cheap jump scare tactics featuring musical crescendos and close-ups of creepy toys and slamming doors. The film battles with choosing between an identity of true horror or true drama, but it never masters either, only managing to scrape up average efforts at both. Although well acted and handsomely dressed in costumes and production design, each scene never goes beyond predictable direction or any resonance of true horror.
It’s difficult to pull off a truly terrifying PG-13 horror film. The Ring, The Others, or even Hitchcock’s The Birds – if you’ll allow it – are all beautiful examples. But one thing they all did successfully was anchor their supernatural in scenes of respectable drama; yet The Woman in Black 2 never cleanly casts that anchor, and is instead a wandering ghost ship wandering through waves and fog with no apparent direction.
There’s plenty to work with to round out this tortured tale of a murderous mother and her foggy countryside home. And if the ending is any indication, Hammer Films will indeed continue to work with it; but we can only hope that they’ll teach their ghosts a few more tricks beyond offering the standard “boo!”