Wake Wood Review
Whilst courting controversy on occasion during an era that spanned decades, the output from the Hammer studios during the fifties through to the seventies is held with much affection by many. And much of that audience will be those who stole the opportunity to catch the mysterious slices of British horror on TV during illegal trips downstairs in the (appropriately) dead of night, on a childhood mission to glimpse these forbidden articles whilst the usually vigilant eyes of worried parents were locked beneath closed lids as they slept soundly upstairs. Of course, parents had little cause to worry; whilst these often gloriously gothic yarns were strewn with monsters, zombies, vampires, werewolves, and blood, the overarching moral stance - gratuitous nudity and lesbianism aside - was almost always that of the most upstanding and proper imaginable.
Unfortunately for Hammer, no industry can stand still, and as the studio stuck (with a few exceptions) to its previously winning formula, the horror audience matured, and developed a thirst for something new. The ‘new’ took a variety of forms; some wanted a harder, more brutal and violent edge, others expected more in terms of the raw fear factor, and some craved increased moral ambiguity away from the predictability of the safe Hammer output. Looking back in an historical context during 1972, for example, it seems almost unthinkable now that Hammer peddled Dracula AD 1972 in the same year as other movies which now seem from a different era entirely; take The Last House on the Left, Sword of Vengeance, and Umberto Lenzi’s unpleasant Deep River Savages as examples, and the contrast is surprisingly stark. Move forward just one year to 1973, and demanding audiences were rewarded with Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, and, crucially, The Wicker Man.
Whilst Hammer did manage a little success after this time (perhaps most notably with the Hammer House of Horror series in the early to mid-eighties), their golden era in the limelight was over, and they shrunk away from the forefront of British horror and settled somewhere in the background in a dark, dusty corner of the collective consciousness of horror fans.
Just recently, however, Hammer have enjoyed something of a resurrection. The company teamed up with Overture Films and Relativity Media last year to release the award winning remake, Let Me In, and Hilary Swank and Christopher Lee star in this years’ upcoming The Resident, also from Hammer. Most fittingly though, the film company’s resurrection is showcased via the film in question here, the Irish based chiller Wake Wood, and for fans of the Hammer brand during their heyday, the prospect of new output is surely a nerve-racking yet ultimately tantalising one.
One can’t help but feel that the original Hammer filmmakers would be (and perhaps in some cases, are) proud of Wake Wood. Whilst there are some efforts here to fuse elements of modernity into the picture, much of the content could almost have been plucked straight out of the sprawling back catalogue, and whilst this is not a bad thing per se, it does leave the generation who grew up on illicit viewings of late night Hammer shockers wondering what this trip will mean for them, other than a journey into a warm haven of nostalgia. And what of the newer, younger audience, who have no memory of, or connection to the Hammer back catalogue?
Wake Wood gets down to its chilling business with suitable haste, introducing, via home video footage, a happy couple with their young daughter, before charting her fated trip to the vets where she is savaged by a saliva-drooling dog of the dangerous variety. This early scene illustrates two important points; firstly – and perhaps in line with Hammer tradition - the special effects eschew any use of CGI, and whilst apparently modest in budgetary terms, look all the better for it. Secondly, this tale is all about the relationship between humans, nature, and animals, and when humans show disrespect to the laws of nature, their punishment will be inevitable - and grim. As the grieving couple seize the opportunity to see their deceased daughter once again, an emotional and horrifying journey begins.
There’s plenty of creepiness in Wake Wood to envelope yourself in, whether it’s the isolated chill of the small eponymous Irish village, the vacant-faced march of the instrument beating religious locals, or the bizarre rituals enacted in the dead of night at the house on the hill. And whilst it’s all enjoyable stuff, you can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit derivative, and hence predictable. Who hasn’t seen the small isolated village, the weird old locals, the strange quasi-religious rituals taking place under the tutelage of the moneyed country gentleman, and the doomed efforts to resurrect those loved ones who have passed away before their time?
Derivation aside, there are some truly gripping moments here. The scene over the child’s grave in the teeming rain is dramatic, and excruciatingly difficult to watch. The extended scene documenting the murky mechanics of the child’s temporary rebirth is extremely well done, eventually touching, and sad. And the moment earlier in the film where Timothy Spall, as the knowledgeable gentleman presiding over the village, works with the couple to ascertain the characteristics of their deceased daughter, should be ludicrous, but thanks to Spall is utterly convincing.
Whilst Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen perform well as the devastated, grief-stricken couple, it’s Spall who really carries the drama forward in the movie, with a performance that grants the unfolding story a sense of complete authenticity. His presence is tangible, and even as he guides the assembled audience through the bizarre resurrection ritual, his conviction never wavers for a moment. A mention must also go to little Ella Connolly as daughter Alice, who demonstrates impressive character as various demands are made of her throughout the dark journey of the film, and she never falters in her difficult role.
Wake Wood sensibly maintains pace throughout, closing proceedings off before the ninety minute mark without outstaying its welcome. As a result, despite the familiar scenes, effects, and plot mechanisms, the film does achieve a relative freshness of sorts. On occasion, it feels like the editing is a little brutal, with some scenes and shots seeming to cut into the next section all too quickly. On balance, this is perhaps a fair price to pay given that a longer running time could have tested the patience of many viewers.
The legendary Hammer studio, still brushing off the fresh, damp earth from its resurrected corpse, delivers a respectably tidy and efficient horror piece, fashioned from the murky magic of the glory days. Yet whilst this chilling article is hewn from the rock of the famous British horror institution, it is in many ways difficult to foresee how the reintroduction of the Hammer horror formula will provide much appeal beyond a limited audience of nostalgia-seekers; rightly or wrongly, today’s shock-seekers and gore-lovers will certainly find it difficult to fully connect with the still relatively gentle visuals on offer. The modern wind turbines of the film which divide the closed village community from the outside world serve as an interesting symbol, yet one can’t help but extend this concept further, with Hammer studios seeking sanctuary in the tried and tested formula of their former glories whilst the modern world of horror outside spins with ever increasing velocity and ferocity. Wake Wood in many ways proves a very enjoyable, effective distraction and relief from the blood n’ guts and terrorfests of today’s horror genre, though longer term I’m not sure whether this stylised form of output will have lasting appeal to a wide enough audience.
Momentum Pictures release Wake Wood on a single disc DVD. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, and whilst the picture generally looks clean, there are some issues here. The colour spectrum is sometimes vibrant, but often the colours look a little washed out and unnatural, beyond what you might expect for a murky small village horror piece. The picture can be quite grainy at times, and the night scenes suffer the most, with the graininess evident alongside insubstantial blacks. I’m unsure if some of this is as a result of the Hammer-esque approach; do the filmmakers really want this release to be so authentically reminiscent of their earlier output? I also noticed a few moments where there is a small amount of flicker, and pixilation, although these are generally short-lived, and it’s possible that the check disc may present an issue which won’t be evident on the retail version. Despite these points, the overall presentation is acceptable enough, and certainly won’t dissuade the Hammer stalwarts from investing.
English subtitles are available for the Hard of Hearing, and are well sized and suitably placed.
The audio on the disc is Dolby Surround 5.1. The audio reproduction is consistently good in terms of the atmospheric soundtrack, with the piano, strings, and other musical accompaniments combining to generate an absorbing and immersive experience. The rear speakers are well catered for without being obvious, proving effective when used for falling rain or other background noise. Bass in particular is impressive, especially as the farm machinery rumbles past on a number of occasions.
The only problematic element in terms of the sound is the voices. Whilst frequently clear, the reproduction does have an insubstantial and somewhat tinny sound, and this deprives us of a little of the suspended reality we crave.
The extras quotient is not huge, but not utterly disappointing either.
First up, we have a healthy chunk of Deleted Scenes, running for 13 minutes and 58 seconds. The scenes run without commentary or introduction, but do provide some intrigue. Of particular interest is a cut of the resurrection scene, which was thankfully and sensibly sent to the cutting room floor. Some other deleted scenes are more appealing (especially the scene where the village mob stand eerily outside the window of the couples’ house), and it’s a testament to the quality of the film that some of these scenes were not considered suitable for the final cut.
A Cast and Crew Interviews section runs for 20 minutes and 22 seconds, and a good section of cast and crew have their voices heard, including Timothy Spall, Eva Birthistle, director David Keating, and writer Brendan McCarthy. Whilst it is a fairly straightforward piece, it still provides an insight into the background to the film and its production.
A slick Teaser Trailer and Trailer round off the small but welcomed set of extras.
For revivalists of sixties horror, this careful and effective Hammer production will be very warmly received, benefitting from a healthy pace, a suitable sense of creepiness and foreboding, and a measured level of horror. There’s no reason why modern audiences shouldn’t enjoy this production too, though with only a few points of reference to the modern world separating this from the earlier filmic output, there is a sense that Wake Wood is a little out of step with its edgier, gorier, and more brutal counterparts. The transfer isn’t immaculate, but there are some interesting extras, and if a partial return to the more moderate horror of the Hammer variety is your cup of tea, you’ll find much to enjoy here.