Languishing on a shelf since 2008, Wake Wood was the first picture produced under the banner of a revived Hammer Film Productions – that affectionately-remembered staple of British horror. Rather than pay homage to those breasts-aplenty horror masterpieces better known to followers of Hammer, though, Wake Wood is more obviously indebted to the voodoo-infected, occult thrillers of "old, weird Britain" such as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, which are also notable for having also long since disappeared from contemporary cinema.
Dumping it unceremoniously three years after production, though, is hardly a sign of any great faith and, indeed, the studio’s subsequent efforts – a remake of Let the Right One In, which met with equal parts acclaim and horror, and an upcoming retooling of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black – have perhaps signalled the studio’s truer intentions to target projects that are more straightforwardly commercial. This is something of a shame, for although Wake Wood must ultimately be considered a confused failure, there’s enough in it to warrant a watch, and if Hammer would rather indulge in endless blarney with Daniel Radcliffe from here on out, they should perhaps consider changing their name to Trowel in better keeping with such a bland ethos.
Mercifully, though, the daring of Wake Wood is announced in the film’s opening – arguably its most memorable and affecting scene, wherein a young child is mauled to death by the family dog, and her father runs down the road towards an approaching ambulance carrying his daughter’s bloodied corpse. It’s a difficult and discombobulating sequence to overcome, one that violently eschews the similar but expressionist prologue of Don’t Look Now in favour of outright bloodletting, and one that’s best to keep in your mind later on in the film when it descends into irrelevant, evisceration-happy hokum. It’s also perhaps the best demonstration why Wake Wood fails to inspire true terror elsewhere in its run: in getting away from the primal terror of losing a child by prioritising the bugaboo, it’s hard to take anything that transpires seriously.
Our bereaved protagonists are Louise (Birthisle) and Patrick (Gillen) who, like Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg before them, retreat to the ostensibly rustic idyll to deal with their loss. In this case that takes the form of the seemingly placid village of Wake Wood, located somewhere non-specific in the Irish countryside. Happening across a pagan ritual heavy on corpse-cleaving and amniotic fluid one night, Louise discovers a way to bring their dead daughter, Alice, back into the land of living – something of a convenience given her situation. But there’s a snag. She can only have Alice for three days before she has to relinquish her back into the abyss, and there’s an arbitrary cut-off date of a year after death for this bizarre ceremony to function properly.
The real problem with all of this is that the mysticism of the film often feels confusing and random rather than any part of an overall design on the part of the filmmakers. A case in point is a borderline comical death-by-cow sequence of an unfortunate farmer that handily generates a host body for Alice’s resurrection, but inspires as many eye-rolls as it does scares. Once little Alice has returned from the grave, too, there’s little to do except sit back and wait for her to disembowel anything with a pulse.
Further to this, quite why the rosy-hued village elder and part-time shaman Timothy Spall is in such dire need of Gillen’s particular veterinary expertise is never fully explicated, yet director Keating is at pains to stress the "rules" involved with the community’s occult elsewhere; often in conjunction with Spall fondling a wooden abacus and buzzing about bringing infants back from the dead. Meanwhile, Gillen’s Patrick flits from witless milquetoast to intractable macho-man back to compliant dunderhead with an alarming alacrity; while his wife’s emotional trajectory from repressed pharmacist to bleating hysteric is rushed and unconvincing.
But there’s something to be said for the film’s essential irrationalism and unblinking ardour, even if the icky procession of old people having their hearts ripped out is less fun than one might imagine. Accordingly, Wake Wood is creaky, overwrought, unsettling, and disjointed – though these criticisms count as much in the film’s favour as against it. A failure, then, but not one to be particularly ashamed of having produced.