It’s the first weekend of a new year, which means it’s time for studios to bring out their dead. With last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones providing a definitive financial (and debatably creative) nadir for the reigning champ of horror movie franchising, it seemed we might finally be rid of the New Year scourge started in 2012, when the damnable The Devil Inside charged audiences $100 million for a half-baked Exorcist routine. With the arrival of The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, it seems the spirit of opportunistic January horror programming won’t be resting in peace anytime soon.
But 2015 already looks to be an improvement on years previous, as The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is far and away the best First Weekend Horror Film of recent memory. Not so much in terms of scare content, mind you: Angel of Death is more reliant on alternately predictable and nonsensical jump scares than its predecessor, and contains only a few real moments of palpable fright. But thanks to its solid thematic backbone and original setting, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death still manages to tell an entertaining ghost story.
For the sequel, the setting has been advanced from Britain’s brief Edwardian era to the grind of World War II, but the titular Lady in Black and her decrepit Victorian mansion haven’t aged a day. Still haunting the misty countryside of a remote village, the Lady has taken a hiatus from her signature “haunt local children until they kill themselves” bit, seeing as the place is now well and truly a ghost town. When a half-dozen young London evacuees are sent to escape Nazi bombings in the comfort of the Lady’s isolated manor, your reaction will mirror those watching a class of high school graduates head off to summer at Camp Crystal Lake.
As if the pall of a wartime vacation weren’t dispiriting enough, the woman leading the children, Eve (Phoebe Fox), has her own dark baggage that’s hiding behind the smile she wears as an emotional counterweight. With handsome air ace Harry (Jeremy Irvine) on deck to lend a hand, and a stern headmistress (Helen McCrory) available to keep the children in line, Eve has a new makeshift family to help her get over a personal trauma…and also look at her cockeyed once she discovers their country retreat is still occupied by the previous poltergeist tenant.
For as much as the actual scares in Angel of Death rely on tropes as creaky as the household they usually play out in, the normal foundation on which the film builds its paranormal disturbances is sound. The “stiff upper lip” required to survive the Battle of Britain is both a source of strength for civilians, and its own kind of mania. “Having ghost problems are you? Sorry, no time to get into that, Hitler is knocking at the door.” When even the Lady in Black and her abode could be wiped off the map with just one misplaced German bomb, the pressure on Eve to keep it together in the wake of the Lady’s meddling is even more stressful.
As with the first film, the transitional elements of the period are employed smartly. Only half the house is rigged with electricity, so flickering lightbulbs are now at director Tom Harper’s disposal, along with the usual gothic candle imagery. Uninspired setup for a jump scare gains a layer of subtle dissonance when a child’s throttling hand becomes a man’s between cuts, and employing war imagery in many of the film’s more ghoulish moments makes for an easy, but effective garnish.
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is modern in more than just setting compared to its predecessor, but those modernizations are often welcome. Characters act and react believably in the given circumstance, thanks in part to unsurprising, but unifying backstories. This lends the tale to a few interesting detours along its predictable cycle of bad omens leading to grisly payoffs and back again. Like Mama, and the recent, excellent The Babadook, the maternal anxieties of Angel of Death give the film a rich thematic vein of fear to explore that’s often far more engaging than the peekaboo games of hide and seek it, and other wannabe fright-fests throw in your face for an empty startling.
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is more than a few terrifying moments shy of “Classic” status, but its surprising success as a simple, creepy character drama makes up for leaving your skin free of goosebumps. You’ll exit the theatre certain you want to see more from Fox, who gracefully handles a distress-filled performance without resorting to hysterics. You also might be a little conflicted about the threat of this series continuing. The lore of The Woman in Black gets even more dubious in the sequel, even while resisting the need for a cop-out ending like the first film’s. Yet, if a new setting and decent characters are all it takes to make The Woman in Black: Angel of Death as generally satisfying as it is, there might be mileage left in this modest franchise vehicle.
3 out of 5