No work of art is ever completed, it is only abandoned. Director Terrence Malick and musician Kate Bush have been known to vanish from the public eye for decades between projects. Angel of Death, released slightly less than three years after The Woman in Black, is no work of art; in fact, the production displays so little innovation or imagination that what is astonishing is that it has taken so long for it to appear, though it might have been preferable not to bother at all.
The screenplay is credited to Jon Croker, whose resume includes ten credits as a story editor, frequently as a representative of the UK Film Council, and truly that is what this feature resembles, odds and ends left over from other peoples’ better ideas assembled by committee, for there is not one original idea present within the entire enterprise.
Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, the original Woman in Black (story editor: Jon Croker), was more an exercise in marketing than progressive cinema, with Daniel Radcliffe cast in a part to which he was entirely unsuited in order to draw in the audience who had followed him in his adventures as fledgling wizard Harry Potter (The Prisoner of Azkaban – production assistant: Jon Croker; The Goblet of Fire – assistant to Mr Newell: Jon Croker). Despite the shortcomings of the film the ploy was hugely successful, but with no marquee name upon which to hang the sequel it must stand or fall on its own merits as a film, and it is incomprehensible what Hammer hope to achieve with this superfluous and unremarkable mess.
It is 1941, decades after the period of the first film, the events of which are largely incidental, though the backstory of the haunting is relevant but referred to in a manner so unhelpful and tangential as to not provide any illumination for those who are not familiar with that film, and the setting is the same, Eel Marsh House, isolated on the mud flats past the now abandoned village of Crythin Gifford.
Young teacher Miss Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and her senior colleague Mrs Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) are accompanying evacuee children to the supposed safety of the coast to the abandoned house directly under the flight path of preposterously low flying Luftwaffe bombers en route to the capital.
The house is derelict, the mud flats are treacherous, and no explanation is made of what anyone in the house eats as there are no local amenities such as a handy corner shop nor do they have any transport back to civilisation, nor do any of the occasionally mentioned classes actually seem to take place. The children are shaken, particularly Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) who refuses to speak, traumatised by the death of his mother the night before the evacuation.
This is possibly a wise move on his part: rather than introducing the individual children and imbuing them with personality in the early scenes of the film, they are presented instead as background players, seen but not heard until they are required to step forward, deliver a line, then promptly offer themselves for sacrifice two scenes later. Curiously, on several occasions inspiration seems to have been lifted directly from Doctor Who episodes written by Steven Moffat specifically The Empty Child (twice), Blink (twice) and Listen, though failing to capture the essential atmosphere of those.
For a studio such as Hammer to fail in the basic tenets of horror in unconscionable. The death of a character is only felt by an audience who has invested in them, is only shocking if it is a surprise, yet like the tiresomely amateur jump scares of crows flying into dirty windows, the death of every interchangeable child is telegraphed before it occurs.
Parkins and her beau, handsome RAF officer Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), are hopelessly generic, right down to the on-cue revelations of their own past traumas, and even the normally excellent McCrory seems to have been given no development other than “stiff upper lip.” Director Tom Harper’s background is primarily in television (Peaky Blinders, Misfits, This is England ‘86, the forthcoming War and Peace) and perhaps he is accustomed to a longer span in which to generate character than a 98 minute feature where it must occur more rapidly in order to be effective.
Crucially, the most important character for any haunted house film has been entirely forgotten. The Haunting (1963) is defined by Hill House, The Shining is witnessed by the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel, but Eel Marsh House is nothing more than a mouldy pile of bricks, the blackout requirements of the Blitz an excuse to shoot the whole film in gloom-o-vision.
All films require contrast to throw the light and shadow into relief, yet from the opening frames in bombed out London there is a pall over the film, a paint-by-numbers of dark and decay, creaking doors, old dolls and dusty mirrors, bangings in the basement boiler room (done better by Peter Medak in 1980 in The Changeling) where the only colours in the palette are grey. The sole moment of creativity in the film is the rusted wrought iron nightmare of a 1940’s maternity ward, but even this is diminished a repetition which makes its significance obvious before the reveal.
Equally, a ghost story should be a mystery to be investigated, comprehended by the characters even as they walk into the trap, but this has not even enough event to merit being termed a story; the only hint of the unexpected Is the momentary intimation that the psychic manifestations within the house are awoken by the repressed rage of Edward, but this is squandered and forgotten in the rising fog of mediocrity. By any meaningful assessment, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is a dreary failure, and if Hammer still wish to be taken seriously as a British studio, they need to do far better than this.
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is now on general release