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June 2011

Wake Wood

cast: Aiden Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Timothy Spall, Ella Connelly, and Ruth McCabe

director: David Keating

90 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 16:9
Momentum DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Paul Higson

Wake Wood

Hammer Films has returned, trumpet blare and football rattles, but the first four productions are a motley batch. A crass vampire web-series, an unnecessary American remake of a Swedish modern masterpiece, a psychological thriller (derivative of Hider In The House) also set in America, and a tale of the supernatural set in the Irish countryside. Hammer's annual announcements of forthcoming releases were always a mad grab of genres and so we should not expect any trend in the new run. The one thematic collusion is that they be of a genre.

Beyond The Rave was compiled into a movie from original webisodes and released to DVD last year. The three feature films, however, went into cinemas. The theatrical runs over recent months came one on top of the other, almost tripping over one another on the screens. This appears to have been a deliberate capitalisation on the handful of completed pictures by putting them out as if as a genuine run of releases as if from a healthy horror studio and so marking the veritable revival of the renowned production house. But these films have not been submitted to the same rigorous production turnaround pattern of hold. The next three could be some time coming.

I write having not seen Let Me In, or The Resident yet. I saw Let The Right One In (Let Me In is the remake) 18 months before in a cinema setting and on principle would never see a remake that clearly has no reason to be, other than to capture the percentage of the audience that don't do subtitles. The Resident was accompanied by nothing but bad reviews a month ago and, in a year that looks set to be a particularly poor one for good movies going into theatres, I paid heed and stayed away. There was, however, some excitement at the end of March as the latest Hammer horror, David Keating's Wake Wood went into cinemas, but despite positive reviews it was the release of the three that was saddled with the most tokenistic theatrical distribution, not even reaching Manchester. Not too great a worry as it was given a simultaneous DVD release on the same day.

Wake Wood offers rural otherness, a constantly revving story, some modern bloodletting and in the Hammer tradition a cast of real actors attempting real characters. Patrick (Aiden Gillen), a vet, and Louise (Eve Birthistle), a pharmacist, lose their daughter, Alice (Ella Connelly) in the opening moments of the film when a dog viciously attacks and kills her. They relocate to discharge some of the unhappy memories and settle in the quiet village of Wake Wood. The village has its odd local traditions but they take a more sinister turn when the couple's car breaks down close to the home of Arthur, the local vet from whom Patrick is taking over, and Louise witnesses the tail end of a bizarre and shocking ceremony which has the aspect of a birth, but for this new born being a full grown adult.

On arriving home they find Arthur waiting for them in an armchair and so it seems the film is set to continue as the tale of a married couple finding themselves up against occult proceedings. But no, this is not the direction that Wake Wood is intent on. The couple learn that the ritual, which is unique to the village boundaries, involves the revivification of dead loved ones for three days only before returning them to the ground. Given their recent loss it appeals to them as an opportunity to give Alice the fond farewell they would have wished and they inculpate themselves in proceedings. Someone must die first and the family donate the body to the ritual. The film allows for a handy stepping of deaths in the village and we witness a young man brought back, a girl during her three days back above ground and an accident in which a farmer is crushed by a bull.

The ritual is grim, the corpse mutilated, the abdomen crushed by a vehicle, the spinal column removed, most of the work conducted by Arthur whose regard for the body is insouciant and brusque, treating it as if he was an operative on an abattoir line. Patrick and Louise must play their part also and return to their daughter's grave to remove one of her fingers.

The couple delight in the return of their daughter and Arthur reminds them not to become too attached for the girl must return to the ground in three days and new expectations arise in how these outsiders will meet that moment and live out the three days of countdown. But no, neither is that the story. For the couple hold a secret. Peggy O'Shea (Ruth McCabe), the wife of the dead farmer, sensed a discrepancy in their account and yet agreed to sacrifice her husband's corpse to the ritual. Now Peggy is in investigative mode. One day, to the child's delight, Peggy invites Alice to go pony-riding to the chagrin of the parents who understandably want her to themselves in the few days granted. The discrepancy is soon felt by the whole community as the skies darken, birds fall from the sky and animals are gruesomely assaulted. Something in the death does not calculate, quite literally, and a devil has been unleashed.

Wake Wood delves into a popular sub-strand of the British genre film, the rural occult fantasy. There has run a rich vein of supernatural greenbelt fantasies over the last four decades peaking early with Blood On Satan's Claw (1970), and The Wicker Man (1973), putting the cult into cultivation. Virtually everyone and every company but Hammer ploughed Britain's fertile magical fields over that time as cornfields and cottages were besieged by psychotic pagans, rampant witchery and often less discernable Luddite and medieval terrors. Hammer did do battle with covens in The Witches (1967), and The Devil Rides Out (1968), the former a particularly underrated affair that if failing in tone certainly succeeded in suggesting the perverse during its ritual sequences.

But those earlier films, while essaying the Hammer quality, in so doing divested a truer mystery and magic. Blood On Satan's Claw would shoot from the furrows while the unique terrors of The Godsend (1980) took place in seas of green grass. The monstrous invisible potent of The Appointment (1981) appeared to own the landscape as it did in The Outcasts (1982). Hammer's films were governed by a studio ethic and the often central European settings suited the gothic artifice but the British and Irish folkloric adventures that followed used the landscape and film fell in love with the natural light.

This is where Wake Wood falls down a little. The digital camera is at time too stark and amateurish. The post-production is erratic with different levels of attention to the image quality and one day-for-night shot is particularly very poorly disguised. There are a number of modern touches which largely work, including the erratic editing during fraught moments, but this pop techniques reek of the identities of others. The film is never dull, and the turning around of the story to bring the threat onto the villagers is novel. Some of the bloody deaths though are unnecessary and lack imagination.

I have a pet hate for scenes in which person A sticks a hand into person B's stomach or chest and withdraws a beating heart. The CGI that accompanies the return of the dog bite wounds to the girl also lose their magic for being so obviously a post-production creation. Aiden Gillen performs in disinterested mode while Timothy Spall is great as the village leader, sinister but ultimately powerless. Spall returns to the British horror film after a short spree in the 1980s when he could be spotted in The Bride, Gothic, and Dream Demon.

There have been a lot of hands in this production enabling it to be made, including Vertigo Films (also behind Street Dance 3D), Fantastic Films, the Irish Film Board and Film I Skane. The presence of Swedish and Irish production houses reminds one of an earlier partnership between the two countries in the 1970s that resulted in Calvin Floyd's fine pair of gothic horrors Victor Frankenstein (1977), and Inn Of The Flying Dragon (1978). Wake Wood largely stands on its own merits, though comparisons are there for the making with Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary, the older film at ease with less plotting and unfolding with darker ease and a more enticing style. Wake Wood does enough of a good job though and is a promising step forward for the new Hammer. Whether it can be sustained and whether the Hammer name can become more than a token moniker on other's products is another thing.

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