Timothy Spall, Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle in Wake Wood (2011)
A dark folkloric horror about resurrection, Wake Wood is an occult chiller in the vein of Hammer's classic 60s/70s output. Indeed, it might be their most classical film to date since relaunching in 2008 with films like Let Me In (Reeves, 2010) and The Resident (Jokinen, 2011) - slick mainstream horrors intended for mass audiences. The true reference points here though are not Hammer films, but rather two acclaimed British classics of the 70s - The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973) and Don't Look Now (Roeg, 1973), which revolve around sacrificial cults and dead children respectively. But the most interesting aspect of Wake Wood is its subversion of genre tropes - especially the clichéd creepy child with glassed-over eyes and whispered threats (see: The Ring, The Grudge, Orphan, Case 39). It's a very trite genre hook which has pretty much exorcized any potential menace through its overexposure in the mainstream for the past ten years, but here the child is a different kind of presence. The parents are to blame for her crimes. They tell one little lie and the rebirth of their daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) goes terribly wrong. The child is allowed to live again for three days but Alice soon becomes aware that she is dead and that the townsfolk will want to put her back in the ground. Slowly she appears different and is forced into acts of unimaginable violence...
There's a moment in Antichrist (von Trier, 2009) when She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) refers to nature as "Satan's church." The occult practice seen in Wake Wood is not intrinsically religious or even supernatural. Keating makes a wise choice never to explain either how the rituals came to be or how they work; he asks us to buy into the magical phenomenon as the parents do - with blind faith. But he does definitely propose a link between evil and nature - when they suffer the loss of their daughter Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) move to the countryside, and the rules of their daughters return is very clear; she cannot leave town, or go past the wind turbines on its outskirts. There is something quite terrifying in the woods that we subconsciously link back to childhood - perhaps it is because of Red Riding Hood? Perhaps it is more general than that? Lewis Carroll's Alice fell down the rabbit hole by the riverbank. Either way, we instantly associate it with evil and the unknown, a fact which Keating plays up for the wonderfully silly finale. And it should be said now that the final twenty minutes are utterly absurd - beginning with the skinning of a dog, Alice's murders become more elaborate and silly by the second. But that's no bad thing - after an hour of steady build up, emotional investment and sporadic flashes of (wonderfully gooey) gore, it's great to see Keating just let loose with some bone crunching, bloodletting violence.
The performances are a mixed bag. Timothy Spall is the best he's been in years as the village elder Arthur who leads the bloody, mystical ceremonies in his garden. Rotund as always and now sporting a tartan jacket/hat combo and a walking stick, he's every inch the menacing countryman, and when his features are illuminated by flickering candlelight his perfect delivery sends shivers down the spine ("Louise, You'd better bring her now."). Ella Connolly is terrific as Alice, imbuing her with both a sense of childlike wonder and joy but also a slowly creeping menace, and the reason her slip into murderous madness isn't totally eye-rolling is because she never overplays it, instead restraining her impulses and delivering something quite deliciously macabre. She's a real talent and it'll be interesting to see where the young actress goes from here. It's not that Gillen and Birthistle are bad; they're just a little pale compared to the broader genre-playing performances.
One element that should not be undersold is exactly how gory Wake Wood is. The opening scene is particularly gruesome and disturbing as Alice is mauled and killed by a dog. It'll be uncomfortable for anyone to sit through but viewers with young children will likely be very distressed by the unflinching scene, which is all the more powerful for displaying flesh ripping and bone crunching in uncensored detail. The Faustian ceremony itself is equally squirm-inducing as Arthur rips the spine from a dead mans body. The sound will ring around your mind for hours afterwards. Make no mistake - this is full-on heart-stopping horror which makes 100% use of practical effects. That may be a result of limited budget - indeed, the film can look quite cheap - but it seems to be more out of a love for the way the studio worked in its heyday.
Hammer were once referred to as the studio that dripped blood. Finally, and thankfully, we can make that claim again... moody, cultish and dripping with syrup, Wake Wood is a terrifying treat and one of the best films of the year so far. It's cinema run is going to be small and quite limited, so be sure to make the effort while you can - you won't be disappointed.
Wake Wood receives a limited run in UK cinemas starting today, and will be released on DVD on Monday 28th March.