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Non-Review Review: Woman in Black – Angel of Death

Horror sequels are notoriously difficult beasts. Much like comedy sequels, there’s the inevitable conflict between what the audience wants and what the audience has seen before. If you plan on replicating the jump scares too faithfully, why not watch the original? If you want to do something fresh, why bother sticking the name on the front? It is an interesting challenge facing film makers, and it’s something that shows. It is very hard to think of a horror sequel that competes on the same level as the original, let alone surpasses it.

Woman in Black: Angel of Death finds itself stuck in that trap. The original Woman in Black was very much a classic Hammer Horror film, a movie more about suggestion and scale than blood and guts. Never afraid to reinforce a jump scare with an orchestra string section, there was something quite endearing and old-fashioned about the way that Woman in Black conducted itself. It was an affectionate throwback to a style of horror largely forgotten in this day and age.

"Gee... I wonder what could possibly be in this creepy basement at this hour of the night..."

“Gee… I wonder what could possibly be in this creepy basement at this hour of the night…”

Given the success of Woman in Black, a sequel was inevitable. However, Angel of Death faces a lot of the issues that tend to plague horror sequels – cast attrition, a sense of familiarity, a sense that most of the best tricks have already been used. To be fair, Angel of Death holds itself together reasonably well for its first two acts. There are creaky moments, and a sense that the movie is trying to hit too many familiar notes. However, the script comes off the rails in the third act, as the film stops trying to imitate its predecessor and attempts to offer something new.

Sadly, the third act simply doesn’t work, bouncing between an air field and a supernatural hostage crisis. The result is that Angel of Death collapses in on itself – leading to the sense that this is a rather disappointing sequel.

Sadly, Chris deBurgh has yet to provide a theme song for the series. Maybe next time?

Sadly, Chris deBurgh has yet to provide a theme song for the series. Maybe next time?

The first two thirds of Angel of Death manage to hold together reasonably well, despite the somewhat clunky subtitle. The film manages to write around the fact the absent cast by moving the action forward from the turn of the nineteenth century towards the Second World War. It’s a very effective way of writing around the missing cast members, allowing the film to throw an entirely cast (and a new status quo) into the mix. It’s an elegant solution to a number of the problems that face a film like this.

As such, the movie’s haunted house is no longer the residence of a recently deceased owner, but a temporary shelter for children relocated due to the war. On the surface, this is an effective decision. The property is derelict and abandoned. While the architecture of the house remains familiar, it has an entirely new texture to it. This is no longer a grand Edwardian mansion, but a derelict family home. Angel of Death never dwells on the question of why anybody would send relocated children to live there, but it is suitably atmospheric.

It's always the creepy ones...

It’s always the creepy ones…

Shifting to the Second World War also provides a wealth of new opportunities. Gone are the trappings of turn-of-the-century horror like horses and carriages; instead, children wear creepy gas masks and navigate barbed wire. The house, isolated in the middle of a marsh and under siege from terrifying forces becomes a metaphor for the Island Fortress. The Second World War is an defining moment in British history. As such, setting a horror movie in that context is quite a canny move.

The production design on Angel of Death is as impressive as its predecessor. It captures the greyed out horror associated with wartime Britain, populating the rural setting with overgrown weeds and mangled trees as an expression of some unspoken horror. As with the original Woman in Black, there is a sense that Angel of Death is trading in familiar old-fashioned horror tropes. The sequel strips away the lonely Edwardian widower and replaces him with a lonely single mother guarding a traumatised child.

Keep soldiering on...

Keep soldiering on…

A lot of Angel of Death is overly familiar, but that would seem to be the point. A lot of the charm of Woman in Black was the reliably old-fashioned approach to scares. The score is utterly unwilling to let any potential “jump” moment pass without cuing up what sounds like the entire string section. Rather than panning or cutting to scares, the film likes to place creepy objects in shot and then have them move – a very clever way of catching viewers who watch the edge of the frame off guard. These are tried-and-tested techniques; they have endured because they work so well.

However, there are points where the familiarity becomes a strain. Edward, the movie’s creepy child, has a picture of his recently deceased family that gets creepier and creepier as the movie unfolds. While the self-propelled rocking chair was delightfully unsettling in Woman in Black, it seems to spend a significant portion of Angel of Death positioning itself for a potential spin-off. The script doesn’t bother to justify the character separations that are necessary for a film like this; the exposition here is somewhat clunkier than it was in the original.

Back in black...

Back in black…

Then again, Angel of Death feels much smaller than the original. Most obviously, there is very little sense of the world as it exists outside the great big haunted house. Woman in Black had an entire village of supporting characters that added to the old-world charm. Now, it seems like the village has died off – the only fixtures near by are an air force base and a crazy old hermit. While this should make the eponymous spectre seem all the more threatening, it just makes the movie feel hollow and empty.

However, these familiar trappings and plot beats do provide an effective structure. When the movie tries to deviate from that structure, it runs into bother. The third act takes the cast outside of the central house. On paper, this seems like a nice attempt to shake things up; it has the bonus effect of shining a light on an oft-overlooked aspect of wartime Britain. However, the transition is jarring and feels ill-developed. Having spent most of its runtime mimicking its predecessor, the film has no real time to properly develop its own identity in those last few minutes.

"Well... it's a bit of a fixer-upper..."

“Well… it’s a bit of a fixer-upper…”

At its climax, Angel of Death devolves into a supernatural hostage crisis. It feels like an ending more suited to a movie like The Expendables than an old-style British horror story. It is a shift that doesn’t really work, because the influence of the original film can still be felt tugging at the edges of the frame. For every attempt to shake things up, there’s an element of the previous film thrown in to reassure the viewers that this is a sequel. The result is muddled and uneven.

More than any losses in front of the camera, Angel of Death suffers from the loss of director James Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman. Both were essential to the success of the original Woman in Black, understanding that the movie was consciously harking back towards classic British horror. The original compares quite well with the classic Hammer Horror canon. Angel of Death lacks that clear sense of identity and purpose, alternating between an imitation of the earlier film and something radically different.

In the Second World War, nobody can hear you scream...

In the Second World War, nobody can hear you scream…

There is a sense that Angel of Death would have been a stronger movie had it opted to either commit wholeheartedly to following its predecessor or break more cleanly with what had came before. In the end, Angel of Death finds itself trapped between the familiar and the novel, never willing to chose one over the other. The result winds up decidedly unsatisfying.

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