How Not To Bust Ghosts, Part Two
Once again I find my deep affection for the Hammer Horror brand luring me into seeing a movie I might not have entertained going to see were it made by anyone else. On this occasion the film in question is The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, directed by Tom Harper. 2012's The Woman in Black was a massive popular success, easily becoming Hammer Films' biggest ever hit (although I suspect adjusting for inflation might give the crown back to a Cushing and/or Lee movie, or possibly One Million Years BC), something most likely due to the presence in the lead role of Daniel Radcliffe. Taking on the formidable task of fronting this Radcliffe-free follow-up is Phoebe Fox.
The film opens in 1941, at the height of the blitz, with Londoners nightly subjected to air-raids. As a result, the children of the city are evacuated to safer locations. One small group of them is in the custody of Eve Parkins (Fox) and her fierce superior Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory), and together they make the journey to a remote coastal village and the derelict mansion which will be their new home. However, what nobody is aware of is the fact that the house has long held another occupant, someone who has her own particular interest in the wellbeing of young children...
Soon enough the Woman in Black is walking again, her attention firmly fixed on Eve's young charges. But is this her usual mindless rage, or is there another factor at work? And can Eve solve the mystery before all of them are beyond help?
I think it's technically more accurate to describe Angel of Death as a follow-up to The Woman in Black rather than an actual sequel: none of the same performers are involved (even the title character has been recast), the period and plot are entirely different, and while there are various visual references to the first film, you don't need to have seen it to follow what's going on here. This is hardly surprising, as the conclusion of the first one was hardly sequel-friendly.
In fact, with hindsight it's easy to see that coming up with a properly satisfying story for this film must have been a bit of a challenge, as the Woman in Black is not the most promising character to develop a series of films around. Once you know her back-story and understand she's an indestructible, infanticidal monomaniac, there aren't many places left to go with her beyond simple atmospherics and mechanical jump-scares. Angel of Death's main problem is that this is the level on which it is obliged to operate.
Original author Susan Hill has been drafted in to provide a story for this sequel, and even she has been obliged to tinker with her creation's modus operandi in order to make the story work: rather than simply being fixated on murdering the evacuees, the Woman in Black on this occasion opts to go in for a little moral chastisement with regard to Eve Parkins' own character (going into detail would necessitate spoilers). It's a peculiar twist, to my mind somewhat reminiscent of the presentation of Dracula as an avenging force of darkness in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and it's not necessarily an improvement – but, as I say, they didn't really have much option if they wanted to avoid a simple retread of the first one.
This is not to say that I think The Woman in Black: Angel of Death deserves the generally unfriendly reviews it has received. Despite having its certification bumped to a 15 rather than the first film's 12 (I suspect the absence of the juvenile-friendly Radcliffe may be responsible for this), this seemed to me to be rather less frightening than the first film – long sequences of female protagonists wandering around deserted houses in their nighties, waving lanterns about, have become a bit of a genre cliche, and you're always pretty sure of when a scary bit is on the way, which inevitably reduces the impact of those jump scares. To be fair, Harper contrives the odd impressive moment – doors slam, toys quiver and shadows swirl as the Woman in Black manifests properly for the first time – and this is clearly a film which has had some money thrown at it, but the script doesn't quite have it where it counts.
This is a shame, as the film is at least well-played: Phoebe Fox is an engaging, soulful presence, and there's a decent turn by Jeremy Irvine as an airman who takes a shine to her. Helen McCrory is predictably reliable in the only other major role, while supporting them all is Adrian Rawlins (who had his own very memorable encounter with a different incarnation of the Woman, once upon a time).
There really isn't anything much particularly wrong with The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, beyond perhaps a certain tropeyness, except for the problem that it simply isn't that scary. Unfortunately, for a horror movie – and especially a ghost story – that's a serious issue. You can sense Hammer angling to keep their options open for future appearances, but even the closing twist of this film feels predictable and rather perfunctory. This is a very long way from being the worst follow-up or sequel in Hammer's considerable back catalogue (The Vengeance of She is available from all the usual retailers, by the way), but I really think this particular spectre has come to the end of the road.