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Wake Wood (2011)
14th Mar 11
Grieving couple bring daughter back to life for three days. Things go badly.
Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) are a married couple who move to a small Irish village following the brutal death of their young daughter Alice (Ella Connolly). It doesn't take long for the seemingly peaceful village of Wake Wood to start looking very sinister indeed. Having stumbled upon a late night paganesque ritual involving mud, fire and the decapitation of a corpse the two start to have serious doubts about their new neighbours. After a spooked cow tramples an unconvincing dummy farmer to death, the couple decide to sod off sharpish. Then patriarch Arthur (Timothy Spall) comes up with a most intriguing proposal. The ritual they witnessed could potentially bring their daughter back from the dead for a three day reunion and the chance for a final goodbye. Before we know it Alice is back in the land of the living and seemingly healthy and normal, but obviously things are not what they seem. Cue the creepy kid action.
The really refreshing thing about Wake Wood is the protagonists aren't just an innocent pair of grieving parents thrown into a dark situation. They are very much aware of what they're doing and have less than honourable intentions. Aside from that though it's mostly creepy kid business as usual where mystics are immediately suspicious of the angelic Alice, the little girl spies menacingly on her parents as they sleep and you just know that pet dog doesn't have long for this world. But this is old fashioned stuff and originality isn't the trick here but the execution and Keating gets a lot right. The interaction between Gillen and Birthistle is very well handled and the two really convince as a couple barely coping with loss. Two people in a room talking and crying is rarely the strong point of any horror movie but in this case the scenes are genuinely engaging and even if you can't relate to their situation, you definitely buy into it. As things get out of control and the body count shoots up in the last act, the two leads remain a strong centre that keeps you caring even if events become a bit by-numbers.
The eponymous village, with it's strange customs and upset cattle is nicely realised and Keating gives the place an other-worldly feel in the first act with weird percussion enthusiasts parading through the streets (what's weirder than weirdos? weirdos with percussion, that's what) and some spooky snowfall creating the impression it very much exists in it's own bubble. The 'birthing' ritual scenes where a burnt mud covered body provides a cocoon from which the reanimated can emerge are both highly original and somehow believable in their mythology. The scale of the cult does seem to reduce considerably from beginning to end but as this isn't the 'they're all out to get you' movie it first appears to be, this inconsistency doesn't hurt the film too much. Speaking of the cult, Wake Wood boasts a good supporting cast which compliments Gillen and Birthistle's excellent work. Timothy Spall is clearly having the time of his life bringing the creepy in a way he hasn't since 1988's Dream Demon (when are we getting a dvd of that gem I wonder?) and balances his Arthur's sinisterness with a lairdly warmth that means he could really go either way. Ruth McCabe and Amelia Crowley do stern old woman and intense hippy respectively. Both performances are solid but it's a bit of a shame they serve pretty much the same purpose; that of letting us know this child ain't right.
Of course a demonic child movie lives and dies on one thing and that's making a small kid a credible threat. The sub genre has pretty much two approaches: 1) a seemingly innocent child surrounded by evil forces and in possession of supernatural powers aka The Omen and Village of the Damned 2) The seemingly innocent child who inflicts one on one physical violence on the other cast members aka The Good Son, Orphan and Devil Times Five. Surprisingly, taking into account the culty themes and life after death plot, Wake Wood opts for the latter. Sure, Pet Sematary (which Wake Wood could be seen as a British re-imagining of) took this route too but here it proves to be the downfall as far as scares are concerned. Ella Connolly is not bad at all as Alice and the 9 year old actress doesn't come off as too nicey nice when she's in innocent mode and looks menacing enough when she has to, but the scenes where she over powers fully grown adults are grossly mishandled. There's plenty of (not particularly convincing) gore and wee bit of suspense, but the kills just come off as silly. This wouldn't be a problem if this was Orphan (one of the most enjoyably silly killer-kid flicks in recent memory) but for the most part Wake Wood isn't a silly film at all and this third act leap into slashery territory nearly ruins everything.
It's not just these deaths that fall flat. Outside of the ritual scenes, anytime any "action" takes place (the death of farmer, the running down of a dog), Keating's inexperience in genre filmmaking becomes glaringly obvious. There's no real spark or intensity and the gruesome bits just kind of … well… happen. Horror fans are used to low budget effects, both practical and digital (both are underwhelming here) but very little effort is made to hide these limitations and the film ends up looking a lot cheaper than it needs to. However, here's hoping this isn't his only foray into the genre as it's great to see a modern dramatic horror with such a sincere interest in it's characters. Praise should also be sent Keating and writer / producer Brendan McCarthy's way for pulling off not one but two nifty twists at the climax. It's no small feat that these are not only unexpected but also totally logical within the rules and motivations laid down by McCarthy's script. Top notch work, chaps.
The newly reestablished Hammer are backing Wake Wood's release and after Let Me In (an American remake of a Swedish film) and The Resident (a throwback to the oh-so American, Insert-Here-From-Hell sub genre of the 90's) it's heartening to know they haven't taken their eye off of British horror. Considering both those higher profile projects bombed at the box office, perhaps focusing on smaller (and yes - more British) works like this is the way to go. Wake Wood may be a mixed bag, but the good just outweighs the bad and old old school horror fans with patience will find much to enjoy.
Wake Wood is released theatrically 25th March and on DVD 28th March 2011
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