Review: New Hammer Horror ‘Wake Wood’

Wake Wood (2011)
Distributor: Dark Sky Films
DVD Release Date: July 5, 201
Directed by: David Keating
Starring: Aidan Gillen, Eva Birthistle, Timothy Spall, Ella Connolly
Review by: Keri O’Shea

Ah, Hammer. I must admit that seeing that Hammer logo appear on the big screen – replete with a brief montage of classic Hammer poster art – was something special. It also brought back feelings of trepidation: in its most recent incarnation, Hammer has (in my opinion) made a series of bad calls. So, what would they have to offer with Wake Wood? Well, here we have a film which, although quite unlike Hammer’s classic horror, still heralds a return of sorts to some familiar themes: isolated communities, the occult and the impermanence of death are all explored here, though by no means in a way which is intended to be instantly recognisable as classic Hammer fare. Wake Wood is very much its own film: it’s understated rather than overblown Gothic, and quietly threatening, not lurid.

One year after the loss of their six year old daughter, Alice, Louise (Eva Birthistle) and husband Patrick (Aiden Gillen) elect to make a clean break, moving to the village of Wake Wood, deep in rural Ireland. They try to get on with their lives, but – particularly for Louise, who cannot have any more children – Alice’s death still casts a very long shadow over the couple. When Louise decides she has to leave the village, the chain of ensuing events introduces Louise and Patrick to the dark, secret life of the Wake Wood community. Yet within that secret life lurks possibility: Louise and Patrick are offered an opportunity to bid a proper goodbye to their dead daughter…

The phenomenon of occult rites in an isolated community, all taking place under the watchful eye of patriarch Arthur (Timothy Spall) suggests obvious similarities to The Wicker Man; there is the same sense of warped functionality within the village, a functionality which can be destructive to outsiders. However, Wake Wood differs from The Wicker Man in many ways: here, the outsiders are willing participants in the village’s rituals – rituals which are altogether more grisly, and presented in much greater detail than in the film’s 1973 forebear.

It is this level of detail, though, which provides the Achilles heel of the film. The intricacies of the rites themselves beg a lot of questions which go unanswered; some additional exposition would have helped to thrash out some of the inconsistencies in the film’s plot, many of which occur due to the unexplained nature of the village’s occult practices. A little explanation would have sufficed to contextualise these rituals and their interesting-looking accoutrements (maybe even just a few lines of dialogue from ringleader Spall would have done) without sacrificing the palpable atmosphere of unease which pervades the film. Again, in places I found myself drawing comparisons with other horror films – Dead and Buried, perhaps, and Pet Sematary to a point – but the atmosphere and tone within Wake Wood is quite novel. I never felt I was simply watching a derivative piece of film. At its heart, Wake Wood is an examination of family trauma, and this theme is pulled apart and examined in an intriguing – deeply ambiguous – way here, one which never delivers moral absolutes or ultimately passes judgement on a fantastical turn of events. 

The Hammer brand carries with it many expectations and also, I maintain, due to its pedigree, certain responsibilities. Happily, Wake Wood manages to combine a requisite sense of continuity with a sense of exploration, as it develops upon some horror staples in a muted, yet still complex way. As much as I adore the Technicolor style of Hammer horror – and I maintain that there is still an audience for period Gothic – I can understand that Hammer does not wish to be limited by past successes, and that it wishes to strike out into modern film. Wake Wood is exactly the type of project, then, that Hammer should be promoting – something which can be promoted on its own terms as an interesting project, rather than defended as a bad idea, or as a reason to get mired in suggesting that ‘all Hammer’s great horrors were remakes’ (which they weren’t). Although there are flaws in the plot of Wake Wood, it’s still a great, gripping horror film, and I now feel enthused and encouraged about future projects like The Woman in Black. More fascinating, enigmatic horror stories such as this would be most welcome…


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