The Woman in Black from 2012 was the biggest success (so far) of the recently revived Hammer Films. Capturing much of the essence of Susan Hill’s novel, along with a big dose of old fashioned gothic, it was a huge success at the box office. It’s follow-up though, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, has a lot more to prove than the average horror sequel. The first film had two major advantages at its disposal; star Daniel Radcliffe, and a lot of brand recognition, not just from the book, but also the very long running stage play in London. This one doesn’t have anyone in the cast with that much clout, and it’s a new chapter in a very well loved story, so there’s pressure against it already. The excellent news then is that this return to that house in the Marshes, once it gets going, is a fine follow-up, and one that can stand on its own two feet.
1941: The blitz is reducing London to rubble, so Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), a teacher, is off to the countryside, helping to look after a pack of evacuees. They have been assigned a lonely, long abandoned house near the derelict village of Crythin Gifford. Little do they know that Eel Marsh House has a nightmarish history. The restless, vengeful spirit of Jennet Humfrye, The Woman in Black, roamed there many years before. Now, with new children in the house, and with several dark secrets of Miss Larkin and the others to draw on, she has awoken from dormancy.
Good news to those that missed the first film; you don’t have to have seen the original to get what’s going on here, this one’s very newbie friendly. It must have been tempting, to make a big deal out of the events of the first, maybe even have a Radcliffe cameo, but no, this works as a standalone story very well. It does require a bit of an exposition dump to make it work, but it’s in a relatively unobtrusive form. Of course, you would get more out of the film if have seen the first one… or read the book, or seen the play. The storyline can actually work with those versions of the story too; this could be partially because the story for this from is from Susan Hill herself (though the final screenplay is by Jon Croker).
For those that have seen the original, it’s a welcome return to Eel Marsh House. The second you see the front of the building, or the ominous door of the ruined nursery, it’s enough to raise the tension. The good thing is that the film doesn’t just play out as ‘more of the same’, the different character dynamics mean that it’s no mere retread of the original storyline. There are some expertly done scare scenes in there too, with the Woman trying a few new tricks. It has a few nods to the first, but there aren’t any direct lifts of shocks. Instead, it has some pretty clever set-ups for new frights, including several scenes of the children in jeopardy, and a shocking moment when we see what the Woman’s presence has done to the village. It’s also incredibly atmospheric, with both the foggy isolated house and the scenes showing the chaos of the war being ever present.
Overall, it’s a very effective chiller. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, it’s near constant chills. The characters all have touches of depth to them. For example, headmistress Mrs Hogg (Helen McCrory) is a character that, in a lesser story, would just be a heartless authority figure but here she does get to be sympathetic. There’s also a good sub-plot about an airman stationed nearby (Jeremy Irvine), touching on elements of survivors guilt, and the larger theme of how war affects everyone. Most good ghost stories have the characters be in some way haunted before the supernatural enters their lives, and this one does that too. The actors are all up to the task, including some pretty good child acting, Oaklee Pendergast being the main focus of the Woman’s attention in this film. Finally, it should also be said that the title character is still one of the most terrifying ghosts ever put on screen, and this film has learned well from the previous iterations of the story how well to time her appearances, while still giving a good sense of an ever-present threat.
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is still a bit superfluous of a sequel, but it does more than enough to justify its existence. It may not be entirely able to escape the original’s shadow, for example its perhaps a bit too blunt with some of the character points, and the ending isn’t nearly as chilling as the original, or the various over versions of The Woman in Black. However, it’s still well above the average for horror sequels, expanding on the original effectively without overwriting or over-explaining things. It’s the right kind of chilling tale for this time of year, and a good addition to Hammer’s catalogue. That being said, maybe one sequel is enough for this series, it’s hard to see where further they can go with the character. Perhaps for their next follow-up, they should consider adapting one of Susan Hill’s other ghost stories instead; The Small Hand or The Man in the Picture could work very well on screen.
One final extra nerdy piece of trivia; as mentioned, no Daniel Radcliffe, but there is a Harry Potter connection in the casting. One supporting role is played by Adrian Rawlins, who played James Potter, Harry’s Dad, in the films. But more significantly, he played the lead role in the 1989 TV version of The Woman in Black! See how it all fits together?