When you think of Hammer horror, you probably think about fog-shrouded paths leading to mysterious woods and towns. Ladies with heaving bosoms. Vampires who speak little but seduce with their eyes. All the good stuff that comes with gothic horror. And don’t forget Hammer mainstays Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who spent years chasing each other around, as Dracula and Van Helsing, as well as Frankenstein and his monster. These are the things that made Hammer truly great – they knew how to create atmosphere and they chose talented actors to play heroes, monsters, and madmen alike. When Hammer announced they were rebooting the company to make films again, I was certainly excited, but the roster hasn’t been too impressive so far. The uneven output ranges from good but unnecessary (Let Me In) to watered-down Polanski (The Resident). And now we have Wake Wood, which tries really hard to attain classic Hammer status but only partially succeeds.
Brief plot summary (from IMDB.com): Still grieving the death of nine-year-old Alice – their only child – at the jaws of a crazed dog, vet Patrick and pharmacist Louise relocate to the remote town of Wake Wood where they learn of a pagan ritual that will allow them three more days with Alice. The couple find the idea disturbing and exciting in equal measure, but once they agree terms with Arthur, the village’s leader, a far bigger question looms – what will they do when it’s time for Alice to go back?
On paper, this sounds like a perfect mix of modern and classic Hammer. Creepy town, pagan rituals, a zombie child – the ideas are all there. Unfortunately, the movie just doesn’t pull it all together to make a cohesive narrative.
The greatest aspect of Wake Wood is the town itself – the look, the people, everything. In keeping with Hammer tradition, Wake Wood is a place of murky fields, shadowy forests, and bizarre townsfolk who hide sinister secrets. Each person in the town seems unique, has their own look and affectations, and contributes to a fully realized location. Specials kudos to the always excellent Timothy Spall (a Shakespearean actor best known for his portrayal of Wormtail in Harry Potter) as Arthur, the head of the town who may or may not be trying to help our main characters. Spall always brings quality to his roles and he helps ground Wake Wood and its inhabitants in realism despite the supernatural premise. Somewhat related; the movie passes the Bechdel test easily and the atmosphere, lighting, and set design are all well worth your time.
The intriguing town and mood are both a blessing and a curse. Our heroes and their plight just don’t do the setting justice. They are bland and irritating and you kind of wish you could have a another story in Wake Wood without them. There wouldn’t be a movie if nothing went wrong and no bad decisions were made, but they screw so much up it borders on stupidity instead of parents coping with grief. The nightmare community that believes in raising the dead is surprisingly reasonable in comparison.
Also, and this is a big damn problem – the scares just aren’t scary. There are lots of dead and hurt animals, but that doesn’t equal scares. Sadness at best. The pagan ritual that returns people to life is pretty creepy, but nothing else is even remotely frightening. Our evil child is particularly disappointing. These wicked little girls are almost a dime a dozen now and this one doesn’t break any new ground. Or even run over old ground in an interesting way.
In the end, the leads don’t hold up their end of the bargain in a premise that had great potential.