Monday, October 3, 2011

Wake Wood

(2011) Directed by: David Keating; Written by David Keating and Brendan McCarthy; Starring: Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle and Timothy Spall; Available on DVD and Blu Ray

Rating: ***

Today’s post represents a mini-milestone – It’s the one-year anniversary of Cinematic Catharsis!  After nearly 70 posts, this blog still feels very much like a work in progress, and I will continue to tweak it in the months (and hopefully years) ahead. My focus has always been on the little films that slipped through the cracks, with an emphasis on horror and sci-fi (my favorites), and the odd documentary or unclassifiable genre review thrown in. In addition to shining the spotlight on classics and overlooked gems, I’ll be adding some new recurring features in the near future. As always, comments and suggestions are encouraged and greatly appreciated. Change is the only constant!

Without further ado, I’m starting off my month-long exploration of all things horror with the new (Yes, new!) Hammer production, Wake Wood. After a decades-long absence, the Hammer name returned to filmmaking with The Resident, Wake Wood and the surprisingly good Let Me In (a remake of Let The Right One In). Compared to the latter film, Wake Wood seems a trifle underdone. It was filmed in 2008, but not released until 2011, and never quite reaches the levels it aspires to, perhaps as a result of raised expectations about the signature Hammer gothic style.  Nevertheless, it’s still moderately effective as a contemporary horror thriller, looking a little like a hybrid between The Wicker Man and Pet Sematary.

If you could bring a loved one back from the dead for only three days, what would you do? What would the cost, emotionally or physically, be? What would the inevitable consequences be? And would those three days ever be enough? The premise is suitably enticing, although these accompanying dilemmas are only left partially explored. The film is set in the provincial Irish town of Wakewood, where an omnipresent sense of dread casts a pall over the landscape. Recent Wakewood émigrés Patrick and Louise (played by Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle) are grieving over the death of their only daughter Alice (Ella Connolly), who was killed by a dog.  Time has passed since the incident, but they’re still trying to come to terms with their loss, and their marriage is strained to the breaking point. The residents of Wakewood harbor a secret, however, that could temporarily bring their girl back to life, long enough to say their goodbyes properly.

The closest thing Wake Wood has to a star is Timothy Spall, best known for his portrayal of Wormtail in the Harry Potter series. His decidedly low-key performance as Arthur, the nominal head of a pagan cabal, stands out. He could have been played as a stereotypical bad guy with sinister intentions, but he’s soft spoken and thoughtful. He’s burdened by the secret that they keep within Wakewood, well aware of the formidable power that he and the villagers hold, and the ramifications of their actions.

Patrick and Louise are comparatively bland, without much to distinguish their characters other than their professions as veterinarian and pharmacist, respectively. The filmmakers clearly intended to illustrate how they were left numb from their experience of losing a child, but both lead performances are fairly one-note. Patrick seems ready to move on, but Louise is still stuck in the past, unable to disturb anything in Alice’s old room. Their haste to agree to Arthur’s offer to bring back Alice, strings attached, is plausible, given the couple’s present state of mind. Good judgment can easily be clouded by grief. She just wants closure, and he wants a return to some semblance of normalcy in their relationship.

One of the things that Wake Wood does right is convey an omnipresent sense of dread. Director David Keating doesn’t miss an opportunity to fill every scene with melancholic imagery and sounds. There is a morbid shroud that hangs over the village, painted in brooding, somber tones. You get the impression that nothing good can result from the villagers’ actions. The rhythmic spinning of the town’s windmills sounds a forbidding death knell.

Wake Wood doesn’t quite hit the mark of its Hammer pedigree, with its lurid emphasis on gore for shock value, rather than relying on style and atmosphere. It falls back on more modern, lurid sensibilities, instead of emulating the traditional, gothic approach of some of Hammer’s best films. Also, the rules about reviving the dead seem vague and ill defined.  Something isn’t right about Alice, but the film doesn’t make it clear.  In one scene she appears to have the strength of a typical 9-year-old girl, and in another scene she apparently possesses superhuman strength. Also, there’s a discernible lack of gravitas in the leads that a Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or a number of other classic Hammer stars effortlessly imparted. While Wake Wood doesn’t really have the gothic chops of its illustrious predecessors, it’s still a decent attempt to produce some stylish, contemporary scares.  Worth a look, if you can temper your expectations.

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