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Non-Review Review: Wake Wood

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Even though I never lived through their “golden age” of schlock horror films, I still feel a sympathetic affinity for Hammer’s House of Horror. Watching movies late into the night with my gran and grandfather was one of those treats my younger self enjoyed on returning from abroad for Summer or Christmas holidays. As such, it’s nice to see Hammer producing movies again. Let Me In was a fairly major success for the company, remarking the already-classic vampire film Let the Right One In, but it didn’t feel as deeply rooted in Hammer’s horror traditions as the Irish horror the Wake Wood does. For better or worse, the Wake Wood is pure Hammer Horror.

The truth always comes to light...

After my parents came home from Africa, we settled in Sligo – a part of rural Ireland rich in historic traditions. I’ve always been surprised that rural Ireland has never really been the subject of too much attention from the horror film genre, as it seems a haunted landscape (if one is inclined to believe such stories). Don’t get me wrong, the fear isn’t the traditional “locals” against “visitors” fare that one frequently sees in horror stories set amid the American wilderness. The mythology is built around an old-world pagan spirituality.

The region is populated with ghosts and demons and changelings. In my early years in the county, I remember hearing stories about the abandoned mental institution (which has since been converted to a hotel), or a ghostly monk wandering through the Holy Well, or even a haunted bell tower in the local secondary school – boarded up after an occult ritual gone wrong (or right). My friend lived in a house built on what used to be the county jail – specifically the section where condemned men waited before hanging. Oh the stories he could tell.

The countryside is decorated with fairy forts, sacred spots that – even today – are left undisturbed by otherwise rational people for fear of retribution. My favourite book in my father’s library was a collection of Irish fairy tales by WB Yeats, and what a morbid bunch they were. Wake Wood is steeped in these old pagan beliefs, from its core ideas about birth and rebirth to its focus fertility and man’s relationship with nature. In olden times we worshipped the earth and the sun for the crops we harvested, so one might be forgiven for wondering what our ancestors would have made of wind turbines on the boundary of Wake Wood, harnessing the very air itself without having the courtesy to ask permission.

Grave concern...

At its most superficial level, Wake Wood can be efficiently described as Pet Cemetary meets The Wicker Man and it’s not a bad summary. The plot follows a younger couple (Louise and Patrick) moving from Dublin to the small village of Wake Wood following the loss of their daughter. There Patrick continues his work as a vet while Louise sets up shop in the local pharmacy, as the couple try to continue their lives.

It eventually becomes clear that the village has some sort of mystical power, one (understandably) left off the tourist brochure. During a strange pagan ritual, the village’s elder, Arthur, has the ability to summon the dead back to life – but only for three days before they depart completely. There are, as usual, various terms and conditions attached to the deal – but Patrick and Louise have their interest drawn to the possibility of seeing their young girl again, even for three days.

It’s human nature to always want “more time.” We frequently remark of a loved one that we wish we’d had “more time” to spend with them. Arthur’s deal, offered in return for a lifetime of service to the community (much less ominous than that makes it sound), gives Louise and Patrick that chance. However, it’s in our nature to always want more. How much time can ever be enough, especially when you’re dealing with a person you hardly had a chance to get to know in the first place?

In the dead of night...

The movie is a return to what might be deemed the “traditional” Hammer values. It’s rich in mood and atmosphere. The soundtrack from P. Daniel Newman wonderfully evokes the sparseness of rural living, the sense that the very land is haunted. The movie does look like it was made on a tiny budget – there are a few moments when it seems like the production values are holding it back.

The film is helped by four strong performances. Eva Birthistle is great as Louise, conveying the sense of sadness and loss almost perfectly. Aidan Gillen, perhaps best known to international audiences for his work on The Wire, continues a strong line of domestic work – he also recently appeared in RTE’s Love/Hate, demonstrating a healthy support of our national television and film industry. Timothy Spall is effective as the village elder, Arthur. Spall is actually quite understated, given the temptation that the role of a pagan priest (and a rural Irish pagan priest at that) might offer to go over the top. His accent is strange at times, but never off-putting. There isn’t a single “begosh” or “begorrah” to be heard.

A child of seventies horror...

However, it’s young Ella Connolly, making her debut, who is most striking. She plays the role of young Alice well – there’s a sense that there’s something not quite right with her since she came back. Creepy children are a horror movie staple, and for good reason – there’s just something inherently disturbing about the corruption of the innocence of youth. Connolly manages to avoid being too obvious, or pushing her performance too far, and she’s wonderfully effective in what is a key role.

However, to sell the movie as a psychological horror is somewhat misleading. I stated above that it’s a Hammer House of Horror production, and – in credit to it – there’s no sense of hesitancy about all the things that come with that label. The red stuff flows rather freely. There’s a rather high amount of gore, and attention to squeamish detail (with little reluctance to show it).

Take for example, the rebirth procedure, shown in all its gory detail. At one point, Arthur goes out of his way to explain how the community used to crush the thorax before the advent of hydraulics. Being honest, a fair amount of this is pure schlock – but that’s entirely the point, Wake Wood is steeped in the rich classic traditions of the low-budget horror genre, where thrills and shocks are to be coupled with grim and grotesque spectacle. Sometimes the movie goes a little bit too far – as a rule, unless you’re in a parody, removing a vital organ from a standing person is generally just a little on the “too far” side of things – but it’s mostly faithful to the films that came before it.

If you go down to the Wood today, you're sure of a big surprise...

The film is, however, elevated just by the skill involved. I am a fan of classic House of Horror and will concede that the vast majority of their library isn’t great – it’s the cases where the production staff and the cast managed to elevate the core material which become something really special. This is one of those films. It’s a pulp horror, through and through, but it’s constructed with a genuine love and affection for the genre, populated with a skilled bunch of actors and handled by a writer and director who know what they’re doing.

If you are looking for an old-fashioned pulpy horror which doesn’t carry its material to excess, this is the film for you. It does look a bit cheap at times, and it does occasionally veer into the ridiculous, but – for most of its runtime – it’s a sincere and genuine horror film in the grand traditions of the genre.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 3.

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