FILM REVIEW: Wake Wood (2011)

Wake Wood (UK/Ireland, 2011)
Directed by David Keating
Starring Aiden Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Timothy Spall, Ella Connelly

The revival of the Hammer brand is a cause for triumph and tribulation amongst horror fans. Nostalgia notwithstanding, the rebirth of Hammer in and of itself indicates some kind of bright future for British horror filmmaking. But with this there is the risk that the new output cannot live up to the past, either in quality or in the precise, easy-to-identify trademarks which made the originals so endearing.Whatever the merits of Let Me In, the Hammer-backed remake of Let The Right One In, it lacked the essential visual and structural qualities which we associate with Hammer: the slightly creaky, strikingly-coloured blend of Hollywood studio convention and European grand guignol, delivered in a distinctively British way via several buckets of blood. But there is no such trepidation with Wake Wood, which is Hammer through and through.The stable name may be from another era, but Wake Wood feels like a product of the 21st century. This is not the output of a single studio, churning out films like a factory, but a series of smaller, more disparate production companies who can use the brand to get the distribution they deserve. The opening credits of Wake Wood list more than a dozen companies before we reach the title, a sign of how thinly spread the funding is and the price we have to pay nowadays for interesting low-budget films.In terms of its place in horror, Wake Wood prominently references a number of films and texts which are held in high regard. The central story about a couple grieving for their dead daughter is a clear nod to Don't Look Now, as is the mention of red in the girl's vision and the images of her wandering the woods in the (yellow) raincoat. An d there are huge hints of The Wicker Man in this couple's status as outsiders chancing upon a 'pagan' community. It's as though the film was written by someone who saw both films on a double bill, forgot that they were two separate entities and wrote their own version of what they perceived to be a single story.Outside of these prominent references, the film also tips its hat to W. W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw and Stephen King's Cujo in the more graphic scenes with the dog. But although it's situated deep in a particular area of horror, Wake Wood does gradually gain its own identity. As the various genre elements begin to play out, they afford the director a chance to experiment while having the security of knowing the outcome.

That said, the first 45 minutes are very slow-burning and deeply generic. This is the section of the film which most reflects the modesty of the production. The visuals are washed-out with very standard camerawork and simple editing, and there isn't a great deal in the dialogue to pull you in. As with a lot of genre filmmaking, there is some pleasure to be had from seeing all the pieces fit together. But by the time we have reached the halfway mark, we begin to feel like something's missing.For a film situated so strongly in the more emotive, 'lost child' end of horror, Wake Wood has a surprising amount of gore. There are pockets of blood and guts throughout the running time, with some being designed to shock and others being used to contextualise the events - for instance, Patrick's work as a veterinarian which leads him to befriend and work for Arthur. The most memorable example involves one of Arthur's farm assistants being crushed to death by the back end of a bull as it is being moved into a metal pen.As well as testing the audience's mettle, the gory parts of Wake Wood convey one of the main ideas of the film. The cycle of birth, life and death (and re-birth) is presented as one with immense agony at both ends and a chance for happiness or peace in-between. Both the cow calves and the resurrected version of Alice emerge from highly painful births - the former requires a Caesarian section on the cow, the latter a corpse being mangled and crushed, like Burke and Hare without the jokes.After the initial agony of childbirth, whether personal or by proxy, the time shared by Alice and her parents is one of sheer joy. In contrast to the macabre and gruesome ceremony which brings Alice into the world, these scenes are shot in almost glaring sunlight with permanent smiles on the parents' faces. It's a moment of immense catharsis for Patrick and Louise, albeit one which slowly returns to grief and then fear as Alice's fate begins to unfold.At the centre of Wake Wood is the story of a couple struggling to come to terms with grief and being unable to let go of their daughter on a spiritual level. The film uses the language of horror - blood, guts, pagan rituals and strange goings-on in woods - to approach the issue of grief in a manner which feels a great deal more honest, brutal and genuine than any number of more mainstream, 'sensible' films. Compare this film to Rabbit Hole, in which all the grief feels choreographed and sanitised, and it's easy to see which approach is more effective at cutting to the emotional heart.

This asset is confirmed in the performances of Aiden Gillen and Eva Birthistle, which are very naturalistic and feel genuine even in the most absurd moments of the film. Birthistle has something of Julie Christie's torment about her performance, refusing to constantly break down and having some kind of relationship with her child which stretches beyond the boundaries of this world. Gillen, on the other hand, has Donald Sutherland's stubbornness, having a desire to move on and occupy himself (with cows instead of churches) while also wanting to do what is best for his wife.The supporting performances, however, are more of a mixed bag. Timothy Spall brings much in the way of presence as Arthur, but his Irish accent comes and goes as he drifts back into his natural brogue. The elderly locals who oversee the ceremony are given small speaking parts, but these mostly end up like the women with the second sight in Don't Look Now: there's no awkward clutching of chests, but some of their comments border on the ridiculous. And the scenes of the pagan ritual are both creepy and a little bit snigger-inducing: fans of Hot Fuzz will almost expect the characters to start mumbling about "the greater good".The final third of the film, in which Alice's return to the grave goes horribly wrong, is where Wake Wood finally gets into its stride and starts to deliver the nail-biting thrills that we had been hankering for. The film takes the ending of Don't Look Now and marries it to the opening of Hallowe'en, so the symbol of the parent's grief is not only a murderous force but a seemingly unstoppable one. This section is spoiled somewhat by Alice dragging her mother down to the grave with her, a la Sleepy Hollow - there is nothing the mother had done which would have made her deserve such a fate. But this is partially mitigated by the final scene involving Patrick reviving his dead wife, who is pregnant with a second child...Wake Wood is a modest but solidly made film which is destined for minor cult status. Despite being so deeply embedded in generic conventions, it manages to take on its own identity through some decent performances and an overall feeling of unease generated by what unfolds. It isn't perfect, with all the shortcomings of a low budget being in plain sight. But as a self-contained, 90-minute horror film, it bodes well for the return of Hammer, and sets the bar in place for The Woman in Black.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: A modest but effective cult movie


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