ETRANGE 2011: WAKE WOOD review

The problem with David Keating's Wake Wood is it doesn't seem to have any idea it's one of those horror films that, let's face it, are essentially ridiculous. Even if you like the genre, come on: you know there's a few of your favourites that don't hold up to close scrutiny. There's ways around this, obviously; filmmakers throw their hands up and admit it's a joke, say. Or they push the subtexts as hard as they can, relying on a talented cast or a distinctive artistic vision to sweep up the audience and paper over the faulty logic, the Idiot Effect and so on. But Wake Wood plays its story utterly straight, even when its plot holes yawn a mile wide and its set pieces seem more comical than frightening. Its cast mostly lack the charisma or presence to sell their tissue-thin, poorly developed roles and the visuals swing far too freely between silly, B-movie gore and stone-faced arthouse miserablism to maintain a consistent tone.

The premise seems like a decent foundation for a solid little genre entry - Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) are a devoted Irish couple, a veterinarian and a pharmacist who've just moved to the titular country village. Around a year ago they lost their daughter Alice in a tragic, senseless accident and Patrick is desperate for his wife to find some kind of closure in a simpler, pastoral existence. But it's not working, and he knows it. Then come the indications there might be something a little odd about Wakewood. First an unscheduled midnight visit calling on Arthur (Timothy Spall) - Patrick's principal employer - results in Louise catching sight of a bizarre ritual that seems to suggest a dead man's been returned to life. Then further oddities on the village streets all but confirm it, and Arthur is forced to admit to the couple that yes, it's true; he can bring the deceased back from the beyond, but only if rules are adhered to, with the understanding this is for three days, no longer. It should surprise no-one to learn that Patrick and Louise aren't too good at sticking to the rules, and Louise is not prepared to give up her child all over again - but the consequences alluded to turn out to be deadly serious.

The umpteenth variation on The Monkey's Paw, then, appropriately enough for the resurrected Hammer Horror brand. The trouble is, intentionally or otherwise there's entirely too much of the old Hammer here. Wake Wood is obviously intended as serious business, with its melancholy score, windswept cinematography and frequent meditations on grief as the catalyst that makes people do all manner of stupid things. It's not shooting for any Oscars, but the opening flashback to Alice's death and how it's left Louise and Patrick's life together in ruins clearly aims to terrify concerned parents far more than give gorehounds something to laugh at. But neither Gillen nor Birthistle are up to selling the drab, workmanlike script, and Keating simply can't make anything out of it with any more impact than some vaguely pretty location photography.

No-one seems to have realised they might as well be shooting a tribute to Hot Fuzz and its parody of nefarious pagan cults gathering under the moonlight - anyone who can make it through Wake Wood without thinking 'For the greater good!' can't have too much imagination. Spall tries his best, and there are one or two moments that hit home, but for the most part this is hysterical bombast and empty jump scares. We're being asked to care about demonstratably stupid, selfish people who haven't been developed enough to come across as anything else. The over-eager gore doesn't help, and the plotting is frequently laughable - anyone keeping an eye out will have worked out the leads' last desperate plan half an hour ahead of time. Wake Wood briefly sparks to life here and there, but it feels like a half-finished sketch that's taken so long the cast and crew have convinced themselves they're done. As far as recent UK horror with a bit of pagan magic goes, something like Outcast is far less polished, but the raw energy, warmth and craft in that film - not to mention its willingness to poke fun at itself - is almost completely absent from Wake Wood. It's fifteen years since Keating's last feature, and it shows; if he seriously thought this was a comeback vehicle, rather than a paycheque, any further work of his is probably going to be equally as forgettable.

(Wake Wood was screened as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival in Paris from 2nd-11th September 2011.)
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