MPI // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // July 5th, 2011
"The dead should never be woken."
Hammer Film Productions made a name for itself in the 1950s by producing cheap yet effective horror films that fed the public a level of shock and the grotesque that they weren't accustomed to. 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer's first big success in the genre, gave the world both Peter Cushing (The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) and Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man) along with a tested formula for horror success. It was a formula that Hammer used, sometimes exploited, to great effect throughout the decade and well into the 1960s with creature features like The Horror of Dracula and Quartermass and the Pit. They were films with a uniquely vivid visual style, a chilling sense of atmosphere, and a level of craftsmanship that rarely shed a poor light on the meager budgets while also retaining a certain level of endearing camp. But with the encroachment of the New Hollywood film movement in the late '60s and '70s, a movement defined as much by its incendiary themes as it was by its in-your-face shock value, Hammer's formula started to become outdated when directors like Peckinpah, Scorsese, Altman and Penn took to the game. Even with a desperate switch to focus on sex and other assorted perversions, Hammer still faded into obscurity.
And then out of nowhere, after a 30 year absence from film production, Hammer began filming on Wake Wood in 2009. By taking their old formula and retrofitting it with both a '70s atmospheric horror sensibility and just a smidge of new age horror gore, Hammer has made a triumphant return to the fold. This phoenix-like rebirth was only slightly tarnished in 2010 with the well-crafted but wholly unnecessary Let Me In and the frustratingly predictable The Resident. Let's hope that they sort it out. But on to the film at hand.
After losing their daughter in a tragic incident, Patrick (Aiden Gillen, Queer as Folk) and Louise (Eva Birthistle, Breakfast on Pluto) settle in the quaint, if slightly off, hamlet of Wake Wood. As is always the case, not everything is right in this pastoral gem. Strange occurrences and even stranger people start to tip off the married couple to the fact that they're caught in the middle of something much larger than theirselves. This is only confirmed when Arthur (Timothy Spall, Topsy-Turvy), the leader of Wake Wood, offers the couple a horrific yet tempting moment of closure with their dead daughter.
It should be said that Wake Wood is equal parts Pet Sematary and The Wicker Man (1973) with a fist-sized chunk of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now thrown in for good measure. These influences are not hard to spot because there's no effort to hide it. There's the resurrection of loved ones and the exploration of the meaning of death and obscurity. There's the strange pagan village, themes of grief, tragedy and the collapse of the human psyche in the face of it all. There's even a sex scene thrown in that sadly does not have Donald Sutherland's bare ass in it (Did I mean to say Julie Christie? I'm sure I did). These connections with past horror masterpieces that Wake Wood cultivates are its greatest strength. And when I say "horror masterpiece" in relation to Pet Sematary I'm of course talking about the novel. The influences that the film wears on its sleeve never turn into a hollow pastiche like so many Tarantino films do. This is because it's not attempting to steal or regurgitate the things that have come before, but instead, the film chooses to embrace its influences while simultaneously attempting to bring something new to the table; something different and something chillingly captivating.
Most importantly, the approach to horror that this film takes is a slow build to the pay off. The atmosphere is incredibly tense and moody as the young couple adjusts to their new environment while also trying to sort through their personal tragedy. The horror here is not derived from a sense of shock value or an attempt at startling the audience through gimmicky pop out scares or ear blasting bursts of noise. Instead, the film chooses to unsettle the audience by letting us soak it all in. Graphic scenes of animal surgery are mixed in with Pagan rituals and other acts of violence to set your teeth on edge and, as a subtext, to make a statement on the fragility of conception, life, and death. But the violence never seems gimmicky in the way that it's presented. It is instead organically woven into the narrative by having the camera act as an unobtrusive cataloguer and it never sensationalizes. It's an incredibly effective method that does nothing but elevate the film past your standard horror trappings and schlock.
This is certainly not a film for people looking to have their pants scared off or to splash around in gristle and gore. It's refreshing to see horror films that don't want to take the easy way out by pandering to the audiences' most basic instincts but to instead take the path less travelled. It's not easy to make effective atmospheric horror but Wake Wood almost pulls it off...almost.
The revelation about the true nature of the town is too rushed and the couple buys into and latches onto it too fast to be believable. The fact that Timothy Spall gives a gimmicky performance as the pseudo-villain probably doesn't help. There's also a lot of substance to be explored between the cracks of Patrick and Louise's relationship but the film never commits to it as much as it needs to. The breakdown of a marriage due to tragedy or even just suffocating grief in general has provided fodder for more than a few horror masterpieces, most notably in Don't Look Now. The film has the ability to create something astounding or memorable in this way and it squanders it just slightly on its sensational pagan narrative. The relationship between Patrick and Louise also isn't as believable as it needs to be in order to have the audience feel invested, mostly because the couple isn't given enough scenes alone and because the performances by both Gillen and Birthistle are wildly erratic. At times the two convey a realistic sense of grief and desperation, cultivating an image of a marriage only surviving because of a tenuous grasp on things that have already passed them by, and at other times the two actors convey the image of two pieces of cardboard. It's maddeningly disappointing to see glimpses and stretches of where the film and these performances want to go but never being able to see it gel fully. It's made worse by the fact that Gillen has spent the last 10 weeks constantly knocking it out of the park on HBO's Game of Thrones as the cunningly deceptive Lord Baelish. But on the whole they're all effective performances.
The film does kick into gear going into the second act as the couple commits to the town and Arthur's promise of closure fully, only to see the warped results of their obsession and inability to let go of their daughter's memory. The fact that the daughter they resurrect from the dead isn't quite right is played to a pitch perfect level, providing a great wealth of tension and suspense that the film never squanders. I couldn't help but be reminded of a similarly perfect segment in Christopher Smith's Black Death, another decently worthy film that slipped under people's radars much in the same way that I bet this one will. And while the film falters in certain spots during the third act, mostly because the narrative doesn't quite know where or what it wants to focus on, let alone where it wants to go, the suspense and atmosphere remain strong throughout. This is in large part to an amazingly well done score that chooses minimalist noises and instrumentation to create a vaguely structured web of paranoia and fear that synthesizes the dread felt on screen.
What separates the film however is that it also has an incredibly effective sentimental side, though a warped one. The resurrection of the daughter is not purely played for scares and chills but also for heart and maybe even a grasp at a tear here or there. Sure, the little girl might or might not start killing people here and there and gives off that creepy vibe, but it's sad to watch the reality of the situation dawn on both Patrick and Louise, as they realize that maybe certain things were better left and that there are worse things than death. This wouldn't be nearly as effective if it weren't for the two lead actors finding the exact right key to play this at, but it's also all tied together with a transcendental performance by Ella Connelly as the couple's dead daughter.
And people who love their "villains" to chew the scenery will probably lap up Timothy Spall's performance as the weird and unhinged Arthur, but very rarely am I a fan of actor's swinging for the fences unless you're Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis or Nic Cage. To me the performance isn't chilling or frightening enough. Spall seems to be trying to channel Christopher Lee's performance as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man but he can't capture that same sense of subdued insanity and mysteriousness which Lee perfected with the role.
The uneven-ness of the film is carried over to this Blu-ray presentation. The video ranges being crisp and sumptuous to looking like your average DV footage. Single scenes can go from looking cinematic and breathtaking to made-for-TV territory in a matter of seconds. Black levels are all over the place, never settling into a perfect pitch. But it does get the job done because this isn't the kind of film that you expect to blow you away visually. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master track is more than a fair sight better however. Again that nebulous and unnerving score is allowed to shine here with a level of clarity that does it perfect justice. Wake Wood also relies heavily on ambient noises to set the tone and to enhance the atmosphere, and the audiotrack plays it perfect with them: not too loud and not too soft. At times the dialogue does register too low but that problem is few and far between.
The extras, however, are a little disappointing. All we get are some trailers for really crappy looking films at the start of the presentation and a collection of deleted scenes that were taken out to tighten up the narrative. The film is certainly not better with their addition here.
Some may find the conclusion of the film to be unsatisfying and generic, and it's hard to not agree with that assessment, but the film certainly doesn't end on a sour note nor does it leave a bad taste in the mouth. It's just another example of an ambitious film not quite being able to live up to its promise or to continue to defy the expectations of the audience.
Hammer has made a statement with this film after 30 years of silence. They've taken the formula that worked so well for them in the past and put a shiny coat of New Age on it. By retaining a level of shock value with a subdued, atmospheric sense of dread, Wake Wood is the rare kind of horror film that truly manages to unsettle you. It may not hit all the right notes but it's worthy of your attention if you're seeking something a little different.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Hammer Films