Wake Wood (2011) is the latest Hammer outing in association with Vertigo Films and with the backing of the Irish Film Council. Does it have the same ingredients, resonance and capacity to stand the test of time as did the Hammer productions of the 60s and 70s? The answer here is a definitive ‘Yes.’
Wake Wood follows a lot of traditional threads in storytelling of the twisted and macabre, which, in its heyday, Hammer did well, but were also apparent elsewhere in ghost stories from previous centuries, yet neatly catapulted into the modern era.
The theme of necromancy (bringing back the dead) was acutely relied upon in The Black Death (2010) (another British horror from the past 12 months set in the 14th century), as a means of highlighting the dangers of putting emotional need above godlessness and natural regenerative order.
A couple, Patrick and Louise, played by Aiden Gillen and Eva Birthistle, are suffering a loss; their daughter has been horrifically mauled by a savage dog , the loss compounded by Louise’s inability to have any more children). To get away, recover and rebuild, they move and start again. An Irish village welcomes them, regardless of the fact that both the couple and the villagers have a secret. The ‘us ‘and ‘them’ wariness doesn’t last when it becomes apparent that Louise especially cannot let go of the memory of her daughter and carries around with her an almost tangible sense of loss and yearning.
Arthur (played by Timothy Spall), the self-appointed village head (in a role not dissimilar to that played by Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man (1973), offers the prospect of three days with their child to the couple after Louise stumbles across a weird human regeneration and recycling process being carried out in Arthur’s back yard. They would be forever tied to the village thereafter, but this seems no big deal – Patrick is the village vet being groomed to take over Arthur’s place here (Patrick performs a Caesarean on a cow early into the first act ), and Louise is the local pharmacist (who smells a rat when a customer wants to cash in a prescription nearly 12 months out of date).
The sympathies lie here with both couple and villagers; neither are wicked or warped. The couple are grieving and the villagers have found a way of preserving themselves. It would have been very easy and predictable to have had the residents mad or backward, as in The Wicker Man, An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Shuttered Room (1967), Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972) and countless others. This is a refreshing turn, where the boundaries of good and bad are not necessarily so clear cut, or easily definable.
The deal involves the use of a dead body, provided by the husband of the village caution litmus paper, Peggy O’Shea – played magnificently by Ruth McCabe. In one of the best scenes in the film, Peggy holds a candle to the eyes of Louise and Patrick with her dead husband laid on a bed behind her and sees something especially in Louise that is ‘not quite right.’ It would appear that the permission to go ahead would be needed from Peggy, as loved one of the deceased for the ritual to be green lighted.
In the only deeply unfeasible aspect of the film, Patrick and Louise go to their daughter’s grave (she wasn’t cremated), to get some real organic matter for the necromancy to work on. A fresh cadaver is used to attain the rebirth of an old one, as the process is watched by the rest of the village in a scene not dissimilar to those we would see in old Denis Wheatly adaptations such as The Devil Rides Out (1968).
Happiness with their newly reborn is short lived. The secret that the couple kept to themselves becomes manifest in the behaviour of their daughter Alice, which has to be the strongest and creepiest malevolent child performance since Damien in the original The Omen (1976).
The ending is a little schlock and straight out of Carrie (1976) and Friday 13th Part 2 (1981), which is a shame for a movie that is a slow burning, evolving story that gradually draws the viewer into an old fashioned tale of genuine unease without resorting to the shock tactics of new, modern horror. A very worthy treat and a more than interesting addition to the annals of Hammer.