The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is not a particularly outstanding horror film, but it’s a welcome sight nonetheless. For one, it’s not found footage or zombie, the two subgenres well exhausted as of late. It’s simply a handsome chiller, an old-fashioned period piece ghost story that, like its predecessor, continues the revival of Hammer horror. That’s the most welcome sight here. Hammer, a British production company famous for its midcentury monster movies with literary(ish) inspirations and pretty production design – most notably, its series of Dracula movies featuring Christopher Lee – had been dormant for decades. But, with 2012’s The Woman in Black, last year’s The Quiet Ones, and now a sequel to the former, they’re back in the game, putting ghostly happenings in creepy houses filled with British ensembles in period costume. Even if the actual films aren’t all that yet, it’s nice to know a venerable tradition marches on.
Actually, I quite liked the first Woman in Black. It starred Daniel Radcliffe as a turn-of-the-20th-century lawyer sent to a dilapidated mansion isolated in the English countryside. Holed up settling the estate of its last occupant, he was stuck in the house as tides daily turned the marshes into a moat. There, he was terrorized by tropes of the haunted house kind – thuds, scrapes, flickering lights, footsteps, slamming doors, apparitions and screams. It worked, enough that a return visit to the mansion didn’t seem too bad a prospect. Besides, the hook of Angel of Death is pretty great. It takes place decades later, during World War II. A group of children are sent away from London bombing to a makeshift orphanage in, surprise surprise, the very same house that scared Radcliffe so. It’s the perfect opportunity to exploit dread with children in danger, vulnerable people fleeing violence and pain heading straight into the heart of paranormal activity. Creepy stuff.
The kids are staying with two women, volunteers from the city who’ve agreed to travel along and keep them safe. The older woman (Helen McCrory) is a military wife, no-nonsense, completely unwilling to listen to the younger woman (Phoebe Fox) as she insists there’s something not quite right with this place. There are mysterious footsteps in the cellar, creaking floorboards and opening doors, and the younger woman has unpleasant dreams of a bombed out maternity ward full of spectral nurses and flickering bulbs. Not even the hunky pilot stationed nearby (Jeremy Irvine) can help her. One serious, silent, lad (Oaklee Pendergast) has taken to staring intently at the cracked ceiling of the bedroom, and at peeling wallpaper in a grubby old nursery full of crumbling antique toys. It’s unsettling.
The whole thing gets by on suggestion, director Tom Harper and screenwriter Jon Croker providing a feeling of unsettling wrongness, that something horrifying is just off screen. It’s all very pleasingly reminiscent of Val Lewton in its low-tech, non-explicit creepiness. A mix of World War II anxieties and childcare concerns create the chills here. Children are continually in peril, sometimes hurt badly. Threat of wartime injury – no lights after dark for fear of bombing – infects the more ethereal worry. There’s an overwhelming sense that nowhere is safe. It’s a ghost story with historical heft, underlined by the serious, handsome production design that recreates the mansion’s details in a similarly crumbling freakiness. It’s a place dense with bad vibes and jump scares.
What I’ve been describing sounds like a pretty good movie, and indeed it is a largely agreeable and watchable one. But it’s an “almost” movie, with its heart in the right place, an ensemble up to the task, a look rich in detail, long on atmosphere and thick with mood. But it’s short on characterization and incident, leaning a bit too heavily on jumpiness and portent. I sat there almost scared, almost involved, almost caring. But it’s a film that settles for almost. It’s striking at times, and quite satisfying on all technical levels. But there’s nothing distinguished or exceptionally worthwhile about it, either. I was pleasantly diverted, but never affected in any way. It plays in one pitch, without much variation, worthwhile only for fulfilling its modest aims for those who enter with low expectations. I liked being back in a Hammer horror world, but it’d be better if something happened within it I could worry about more than superficially.