As German bombs rain down on London, young teacher Eve (Phoebe Fox) accompanies her stern headmistress Mrs Hogg (Helen McCrory) as they evacuate a group of children to the English countryside. Among their charges is Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) a traumatised young boy who has become mute following the bombing that killed his parents. Eve forms a bond with the child though Mrs Hogg disapproves. On the train journey out, Eve also meets Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine) a dashing young bomber pilot who has been stationed nearby, something that raises Mrs Hogg’s disapproving eyebrow still further.
The countryside should be a refuge, a return to a pastoral past free from the threat of aerial annihilation, but the children are to be housed in Eel Marsh House an estate off the coast regularly cut off from the mainland by dangerous tides. Even when the causeway connecting the house to land is clear, a few steps off the road lethal quicksand makes driving in near perpetual fog treacherous, something further exacerbated by blackout regulations requiring vehicles travel at night without headlights.
The dangerous landscape and the dilapidated, mildew-ridden mansion are the least of their problems however. Although the house appears derelict it has another occupant, the titular Woman in Black, a spectre whose appearance is reported to foreshadow the death of a child.
2012’s The Woman in Black was a sizable hit for the resurrected Hammer Studios, so it was inevitable that the company would seek to franchise the property. The first film (based on Susan Hill’s novel) definitively tied up its storyline, so moving it forward by some 40 years makes sense allowing for an all-new cast of characters for the spectre to menace. Hill receives co-story credit with screenwriter Jon Croker, but it seems there may have been some significant further story development. When first announced in summer 2012 the reported plot synopsis had Eel Marsh House converted into a military mental hospital full of traumatised soldiers. Some of this still remains with vaguely explained supernatural flashbacks suggesting that the house may have been used for a similar purpose in the years since the events of the first film (the film’s novelization, released back in January 2014, does have the house used for a school so this earlier idea may not have made it even to the first draft).
Characters are drawn from stock archetypes, Eve the young caring teacher (with a hidden secret), Harry the dashing soldier (with a hidden secret), Mrs Hogg the severe and stentorian headmistress (with a hidden heart). The children are barely characterised at all, Pendergast is required to do little but be adorable and activate the audience’s natural concern for a child under threat. The cast en-masse have very little to get their teeth into. Even the usually reliable McCrory makes minimal impact.
The Woman in Black had numerous twists giving the ghost a very complex history. The sequel makes a significant error by referring to just enough back story to render her motivations deeply confusing, but not enough to remind one of what happened in a film probably last seen two years ago.
The most significant failing of the film is that isn’t scary. Sure the unprepared and horror film neophytes may jump when director Tom Harper cranks up the sound levels and delivers a loud BOO into their ear, but that is a poor alternative to building escalating suspense. Not content to pull the cheapest of scare gags off once, Harper quickly settles into a rinse and repeat groove of quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG! quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG! quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG! That continues for the length of the movie only occasionally broken up with goofy ‘sudden cat scares’. At the same time it is all terribly polite, without a visceral punch, and entirely lacking any sense of dread.
The look of the film fits in with a rationing-era aesthetic, desaturated colours with a grey blue cast over everything. When the frame is frequently invaded by digitally enhanced fog this renders much of the onscreen action an indistinct mess. To compensate for the drab visuals the sound design is frequently ear-splitting. Amid the recycled tropes from the first film (yes the maracas wielding monkey is back, albeit a little mouldier than before) there is one sequence that demonstrates a spark of originality by supplying a credible reason for characters to venture into a dark basement in an obviously haunted house by candlelight.
Following the commercial and critical disappointment of The Quiet Ones, Hammer needs to do much, much better than this.
Review previously published on http://www.veritefilmmag.com
The Woman in Black 2 is now available on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK