The haunted house has become such a recurring trope in horror literature and cinema that it’s now a bona fide sub-genre in its own right. From modern semis to labyrinthine old mansions, there’s little that’s more innately spooky than feeling unnerved in one’s own home, while filmmakers have utilised that communal fear sublimely in offerings from The Haunting (1963) to The Innkeepers (2011). The latest British entry into this communion comes in the form of Blackwood (2013), the feature debut from director Adam Wimpenny, based on the first screenplay by artist J.S. Hill. It’s a strange film with some interesting ideas that ultimately rest on perfunctory storytelling, leaving the piece short on tension.
Ben (Ed Stoppard) is a celebrated historian who has recently been through a nervous breakdown. Relocating away from the stressful confines of Oxford, he moves his family – wife Rachel (Sophia Myles) and son Harry (Isaac Andrews) – into the eponymous country house. Once there, Ben finds that creaking floorboards are the least of his worries. An unhinged war veteran (Being Human’s Russell Tovey) lurks in the nearby woods and the local priest (actor and comedian Paul Kaye, pictured right) does little to assuage suspicion. Worse still, Ben quickly finds himself plagued by visions of a little boy carrying a machete and an eerie owl mask. True to form, our man is soon investigating the unexplained disappearance of a mother and child six months earlier, unable to rest until the case is closed.
One hurdle that any ghost story must face is the inevitable assessment of how much it scares. In this pivotal regard, Blackwood’s over-reliance on the sudden materialising of various apparitions to illicit jumps never quite works. Despite the growing sensation that the audience should be anxious and uneasy – but we never truly are. As the end approaches, Hill and Wimpenny try their best to ramp up the tension but it’s to little avail, while the final twist leaves a slight feeling of dissatisfaction. Placing a family in an old house that may or may not be home to a disgruntled ethereal spirit is hardly groundbreaking, yet ambiguity is keenly established via the protagonist’s fragile state of mind. During a lecture, Ben advises his students never to fill in the gaps of history as we become more uncertain about the conclusions he draws.
The screenplay admirably attempts to play with ideas of perception, deception, the past’s influence on the future as well as subverting conventions. Regrettably, most of nuance is lost as Ben’s mood swings lurch into the ridiculous. The rest of the cast all do their best with some frequently ropey dialogue; a surprisingly good Kaye in particular feels as though he has walked out of a far more chilling movie. Similarly, the production values are of a high quality giving the setting and visuals a character that the genre aspects could have done with more of. It’s not all doom and gloom, but unfortunately Wimpenny’s Blackwood never quite finds its feet – a shame, as its central conceit certainly had legs.