Two years ago, Daniel Radcliffe starred in Hammer’s adaptation of The Woman In Black, the Edwardian chiller adapted from Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. It was an efficient, effective little ghost story, with Radcliffe oddly cast, given his age, as a widowed accountant with a maudlin young son, but he was nevertheless extremely adept at stalking through the corridors of Eel Marsh House, lantern in hand and saucer-eyed with terror.
Radcliffe and director James Watkins are nowhere to be seen in the sequel, Angel Of Death, but the staples of the first film are otherwise present and correct. It’s 40 years after the events of the last story, and London’s crumbling as Nazi bombs fall at the height of World War II.
Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) is a young teacher with a wan smile who accompanies a group of eight children and her formidable superior, Mrs Hogg (Helen McCrory) as they’re evacuated from the city and ushered by train out into the safety of the countryside. Unfortunately, the bewildered, grey-faced kids are being evacuated to Eel Marsh, the old house of long shadows, now more shabby and neglected than ever.
There, Eve befriends a dreamy pilot named Harry (Warhorse’s Jeremy Irvine), who serves at a nearby airbase, and takes under her wing a quiet little orphan, Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) who clutches to a pencil drawing of the parents he lost in the blitz just days before. But something quiet and evil lurks in the house, and seemingly energised by the youthful presence in its midst, it begins to prey on the visitors’ fears and guilty secrets.
As established in Hill’s novel and its previous adaptations, such as the 80s ITV show written by Nigel Kneale and the successful stage production, Eel Marsh Hall is a truly ominous creation. Enshrouded in mist and cut off from the mainland by the sea at high tide, it’s isolated enough to raise the hackles before a single ghost has even rattled its chains. Angel Of Death, written by Jon Croker (Fast Girls) and directed by Tom Harper (The Scouting Book For Boys) doesn’t tamper with the locale created by Watkins in the 2012 adaptation. Instead, Angel Of Death builds on it in much the same way as James Cameron did with his sequel to Alien: like 1986’s Aliens, a group of unprepared characters wind up right in the heart of the first film’s horror, making for more supernatural carnage and higher dramatic stakes for the new heroine.
Angel Of Death is also slightly broader in scope, and Croker’s story makes novel use of his World War II setting; as excuses for getting a class of terrified children into a haunted house go, an evacuation in the chaos of the blitz is a fairly logical one. Phoebe Fox (One Day, Switch) also makes a great 1940s Ripley analogue: intelligent, brave and relatable, she’s the sweet, relatable contrast to Helen McCrory’s glacial performance as Mrs Hogg – not to mention the mother-gone-toxic ghoul of the movie’s title.
Harper depicts the era efficiently, beginning with the stifling confines of a London Underground shelter before whisking us off to the worst boarding house the British Isles has to offer. The shocks are also effectively staged, though there’s a disappointing reliance on textbook jump scares to put us on edge when the old house’s creepy ambiance would have probably been enough all by itself.
Angel Of Death also has a tendency to stir around the ingredients established in the first film rather than push the haunted house premise into fresh territory. The toys with staring eyes, shrouded figures and taunting messages on walls are back again, albeit in different contexts. But what’s here is well engineered and effective, with cinematographer George Steel capturing the eerie moors, trees and cellars with real class.
One of the film’s motifs is the thudding, grinding sound of something moving just off camera. It has the mechanical rhythm of an unholy steam engine, which is essentially what Angel Of Death is: a finely-tuned machine, its editing, sound and lighting all carefully designed to leave us unnerved. It’s a traditional, sometimes predictable horror film, for sure, and lacks the depth and lasting resonance of something like The Babadook. But Angel Of Death is also atmospheric, well acted, and laden with enough scares to leave us shuddering while the theatre lights are down.
The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death is out on the 1st January 2015 in UK cinemas.
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