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Wake Wood

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David Keating
Eva Birthistle
Aiden Gillen
Timothy Spall
Ella Connolly
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With the advantage of the prestige that comes automatically from association with the newly resurrected Hammer Films brand, this atmospheric supernatural thriller starts out  strong and has a fantastically potent premise behind it from the mind of writer Brendan McCarthy, who is clearly a name to watch after having also produced another recently released and intriguing occult-themed movie,  “Outcast”. “Wake Wood” seems to be McCarthy’s attempt to do for the countryside what “Outcast” managed to do for urban environments (in that case Edinburgh housing estates) and is another evocative low budget delve into a treasure trove of superstition and neo-pagan practice, this time centred on an isolated village community in rural Ireland that seems to have come up with its own rather creepy form of extreme grief counselling for the recently bereaved.

Louise and Patrick Daley (Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen) are the devastated parents of a little girl, Alice (Ella Connolly), who was the victim of a vicious dog attack which took place a year before they moved to the small village of Wake Wood, where Patrick works as a veterinary surgeon at the local practice while Louise runs the village pharmacy. The couple clearly haven’t learned how to come to terms with their loss (we see brief flashbacks to the tragedy and the parents’ discovery of their little daughter’s mauled body, intercut with their initial, rather sombre arrival in the village by car a year later) and the marriage doesn’t look likely to survive, with there being little interaction or communication evident between them.

Their flight from the city to this rural backwater seems to represent an psychological attempt to avoid facing up to and learning how to live with their loss, and is aligned with the film’s representation of the community’s isolation, the village’s remoteness from civilisation demarcated by a line of modern white wind turbines that seems to represent a cut-off point on the outer edge of the woodland that surrounds the village, beyond which the couple are entering a bygone age that resonates with the farming land and the woods. While Patrick is away at work in the daytime, delivering calf at a nearby farm in the area for his eccentric squire-like boss Arthur (nicely played by Timothy Spall), Louise has a strange encounter with the young niece of a village local: the girl has a corpse-like pale pallor and talks about Alice without having ever been given her name, as though she already knew the dead child.

The emotional distance between Patrick and Louise shows no sign of closing up and eventually Louise decides to leave the village on her own. As Patrick drives her to the station, though, their car breaks down on an isolated stretch of country road at night and the couple make their way to the nearest house -- which happens to be that of Patrick’s boss Arthur. Here Louise accidently stumbles upon a bizarre pagan ritual being held on the grounds, that seems to implicate the entire village community and which is being performed and led by Arthur. The locals stand in a circle about a scaffold which holds a blackened husk or chrysalis of some kind, out of which emerges a slippery wet human being, like a calf being born from one of Patrick’s heifers. Eventually, Louise comes to believe that the villagers have the power to bring the dead back to life, and that the girl in the pharmacy who 'knew’ her daughter was one of these reborn individuals. This bizarre idea is soon confirmed by Arthur, who eventually offers the couple the chance to see their daughter again in order to make Patrick stay on as a vet in the village. Patrick is at first resistant to the crazy idea, but the notion seems to be enthusing his once emotionally deadened wife, so he decides to go along with it.

Naturally, there are strict conditions applicable to how this procedure is to take place. For one thing, the deceased individual can only come back for three days. Another corpse must be supplied to act as the birthing vehicle out of which the re-animated dead will emerge, and permission must be sought from the closest relative of this corpse for the procedure to take place. A relic from the deceased who is to be brought back must be obtained, and blood from one of the parents must be given during the ritual. During the brief stretch of time in which Alice will live again with her parents, the couple must use the opportunity to make their final peace with their daughter and come to terms with her loss, knowing that at the end of three days she will be sent into the woods on the journey back into the beyond, to return once more to the earth which briefly brought her forth again.

Unfortunately, this ritual can only be performed if the deceased subject has been dead for less than a year, and Alice falls just outside the allotted time limit. Louise and Patrick decide to lie about this in order for the ritual to be allowed to take place; and the consequences of this lie will be devastating for the whole community.

Clearly this is almost the perfect kind of material with which to resurrect the name Hammer, which seems to be successfully associating itself at the moment with low-key, thoughtful, almost arthouse horror movies like “Let Me In” and this, rather than anything resembling the colourful populist fare with which the company made its name during its heyday. The fact that the film harks back to the great tradition of occult horror in British cinema during the sixties and seventies certainly helps sell the whole enterprise, although the films which “Wake Wood” most invokes are not necessarily the Hammer classics, but ones like “Witchfinder General”, “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and “The Wicker Man” – and then only in so far as the film is for the most part an atmospheric, picturesque, character-based piece, where the landscape and the notion of obscure pseudo pagan rites that stand for an ancient past, are foregrounded as a metaphor for the buried emotions of guilt and grief which are the main subject of McCarthy’s script.

Director David Keating creates a suitably mysterious atmosphere around the rather rundown, old-fashioned village location at the heart of the narrative idea (the film was shot in County Donegal in Ireland, and also Sweden) hedging it in between the ancient and the modern with a creepy circle of oddly shaped standing stones on one side, and the jarring modern wind turbine structures that tower over the green hills on the other. The ritual itself is another successful element, recasting the practical country ways and skills we see in other areas of the film in a macabre new fashion: the strange process by which Alice is reborn is very much like the caesarean section we see her father performing on a cow near the start of the picture and the ritual, which seems ancient but un-associated with any particular religious practice, clearly makes use of notions of the circle of life and death in nature, but utilising modern-day farming equipment as well, such as a tractor to crush the bones of the body which is to provide the ’shell’ out of which the reborn child will emerge, and a fire extinguisher to douse the flames after the host cadaver (which is covered in mud mixed with some blood from one of the parents) is set alight in a sort of transformative, alchemical process. Thankfully, CGI is notably absent from the rebirth ritual, which is portrayed as a real-looking organic process, smeared in mud and blood and the rotting flesh of a corpse crushed up and baked as a shell for the reborn. The film is replete with a host of quirky details: the villagers of course seem conspiratorial and are apt collectively to indulge in strange repetitive practices such as the scraping and tapping of bits of twig on a strange-shaped block; and are seen congregating with torches like the proverbial ‘angry peasant mob’ at one stage. The ‘interview’ Arthur carries out to establish Louise and Patrick’s suitability for the procedure, involves his making use of a bizarre abacus-like contraption made of chips of stone or flint that are strung across a wooden framework constructed from branches of gnarled oak. The script is festooned with great design touches  like these, that add considerably to the general atmosphere of oddness and unfamiliarity.

The heart of the film revolves around Louise and Patrick’s relationship with each other, and with their daughter once she comes back from the dead. The film becomes achingly surreal and moving, as we see them wiping the mud and dirt of the earth from their re-born daughter, and attempting to resume their carefree existence from before the tragedy, still not really acknowledging what must inevitably follow. By lying about the year–long time limit on her rebirth, they have crossed some sort of unspoken boundary, beyond which the healing process that the ritual is intended to aid seems no longer properly facilitated by their ability to see her again, and there are ultimately terrible consequences for their duplicity. For a start, they can now no longer leave the village: Alice’s wounds from the original attack that killed her rematerialize once she steps beyond the line of wind turbines that would take the family outside the village. Some of the locals start to become a little bit suspicious of her parents’ story, and Alice’s creepy behaviour itself can sometimes lead to more questions being asked. Here the film begins to take its lead more from “Don’t Look Now” and probably the American proto-slasher  that was influenced by it, Alfred Sole’s  “Alice, Sweet Alice” (the name of the character is surely no coincidence, seeing as Alice spends the whole of the second half of the movie clad in a bright yellow plastic mackintosh!) and turns into a more traditional gory horror flick, with the perfectly cast eight-year-old  Ella Connelly -- who displays just the right combination of doe-eyed innocence still somehow hinting at an underlying malevolence – turning in a chilling performance as an Alice who clearly doesn’t want to go back to the grave after her three days are up, and sets about disposing of the villagers who might otherwise send her there.

Clearly the reborn Alice stands for the embodiment of the guilt-ridden grief of the parents, but now turned horribly malignant; but the film resolves to use the idea in a rather perfunctory manner, having the diminutive little girl turn bad and disposing of a series of victims in outlandishly gory ways, sometimes using the very implements that were used to cut her from the burned-out body that gave birth to her in the first place. This does seem in the end rather a prosaic resolution of a chilling metaphorical idea that otherwise resonated with potential. The film is less convincing as a gory ‘shocker’ than as a creepy atmospheric character-led piece, but there are some evocative images at the climax nonetheless, especially when the true price that has to be paid by Alice’s parents for her unwise return from the earth is finally made apparent, as the villagers assemble in the woods where Alice is determined to avoid her intended fate.  

The film is released theatrically at the end of March while the DVD from Momentum comes out just a few days later. It includes a teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer, a few deleted scenes (which includes a longer, more detailed sequence in which the ritual is shown in much more detail) and a great making of documentary that runs for twenty minutes and makes clear why Hammer chose to associate itself with this style of movie, while the actors, writers and the director talk about the film’s aims and influences.

“Wake Wood” throws out more original ideas and strange images in eighty minutes than most modern horror films these days, but, like “Outcast” before it, ends up resorting to the template of a tried and tested formula in order to resolve them at the end. Nevertheless, there is enough of interest here that resonates to intrigue the same audience who enjoyed a certain recent Swedish vampire film and its English language remake. Recommended.

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