MOVIE REVIEW: THE WOMAN IN BLACK: ANGEL OF DEATH / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TOM HARPER / SCREENPLAY: JON CROKER / STARRING: HELEN MCCRORY, JEREMY IRVINE, LEILAH DE MEZA, PHOEBE FOX, LEANNE BEST / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 1ST 2015
During the worst days of World War II, hundreds of children were evacuated from bomb-ravaged London to the supposed safety of the countryside. But the remote area of Northeast England where a group of young evacuees - chaperoned by headmistress Mrs Hogg (McCrory) and her young assistant teacher Eve Parkins (Fox) - are sent holds its own dangers, much worse than anything the war could throw at them. For the sinister Eel Marsh House, which is to be their home for the remainder of the war, houses a dark and terrible secret that is re-awakened by their arrival with tragic results.
The secret of Hammer Films' success - in the horror genre that cemented their worldwide reputation with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) - was their uncanny knack at capturing the perfect period air. Though they would also try, with reasonable success, to stage chillers within contemporary environments - as with psychological horrors like Paranoiac (1963) - it was always their films set in the past that worked best and are most fondly remembered by fans and critics alike.
There was also something safe about their brand of horror. The Kensington Gore may have flowed more freely in a technicolored brilliance, but audiences knew underneath that good would win out in the end and the films always finished on the moral high ground. One of the reasons often mooted amongst scholars for the demise of the studio was the fact that they were unable, or unwilling, to offer audiences the full-on visceral horror which began to flood the market with the emergence of the slasher film from America during the latter part of the 1970s. Hammer had been born - and would die - from subtlety and suggestion, as opposed to the blatant, in-your-face approach.
All of which means that the films the studio is producing now, in an attempt to recapture their faded glory should, on the surface, work well. Their biggest hit since their recent re-emergence on the horror scene, The Woman in Black, is reputedly the most successful British horror film ever. Though cynics may claim that much of that film's appeal was down to the presence of boy wonder Daniel Radcliffe in the central role of Arthur Kipps, there’s no denying that the adaptation of author Susan Hill's classic English ghost story was wonderfully atmospheric, and managed to evoke some of the studio's old magic from its glory days of the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
Which brings us to The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. Though not a direct sequel, the film does make use, indirectly, of much which happened in the 2012 hit, cleverly bringing in situations and locations and referencing characters - not least the ghostly dark lady herself - in a plot which is none-the-less original and imaginative in its own right. The main thing this film shares with its predecessor - and with the wider heritage of the studio - is its use of atmosphere and suggestion to raise old-school chills, as opposed to blatant and crass gore and mayhem. Here is a film which effectively utilises the environment and setting of Eel Marsh House - the decaying island mansion, haunted by the malevolent spirit of the 'Woman in Black' and where she brings turmoil to anyone who ventures within its walls - to create a feeling of remoteness and unease which seeps into the viewer's subconscious, lingering long after the film has ended.
However, the setting may also be one of the film's weaker points. Part of Hammer's appeal - at least in their early days - was their ability to make use of whatever came readily to hand, whether that be props, regular cast and production crew, and, of course, settings. Though much of this was due to limited budgets, the regular appearance of locations such as Oakley Court in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire's Black Park lent the studio's films a continuity and simpler appeal missing from many bigger budget productions. Now, having more money behind them clearly enables the studio to indulge in bigger sets and further afield locations for films like The Woman in Black: Angel of Death. However, though this may heighten the film's authenticity, it never the less dulls some of the homespun charm that made Hammer's early productions what they were.
Written by Jon Croker and Susan Hill - the author of the 1980s bestseller on which the 2012 film, television production and smash hit West End play were based - the new film effectively combines elements of the original story with a new situation, taking place during World War II. This new environment provides plenty of infant fodder to stir the story's evil, which it does with suitably chilling results. Though the cast - of whom the aloof McCrory stands out in the role of austere headmistress - give effective and believable performances, it’s really the house and surrounding marshes which are the stars; lending the film its appeal and suitably creepy ambiance.
Only time will tell whether The Woman in Black: Angel of Death will manage to continue Hammer's much-hyped comeback on the film scene. However, as a visual embodiment of the classic Gothic air on which the studio built their fortunes, it’s an effectively unsettling addition to their canon of classic fright films.
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10