I first heard about Wake Wood on the A Year in the Country blog. All I knew going in was that the trailer had the feel of The Wicker Man and it stars Aidan Gillen from The Wire. That's more than enough for me to check it out.
The premise is simple, a married couple move to a small village in the country after the death of their daughter. There, they discover the townsfolk engage in disturbing rituals. When the couple decide to leave, they are convinced to stay by one of the civic leaders. He tells them that he can bring their daughter back to life for three days, but of course, it comes with a heavy price.
It's one of those story ideas you would swear you've heard a million times, I call it the Monkey's Paw device.
I can’t say I loved Wake Wood, but I certainly didn’t hate it. An easy criticism to level at it is that the emotional element of the story is taken for granted from the get-go, rather than developed. The storytellers introduce the Daley family to the audience then kill their young daughter. This happens immediately, before the title card is even up on screen. From that point forward, the emotional impact of the daughter’s death on the parents is taken for granted and left unsaid. I understand what an impact that loss would have on a person, but how does it affect these people? What’s needed are a few quiet scenes of grief, that’s all, taking whatever form you’d like.
These can be boring scenes to write and I understand the urge to just push through the story, but when mother Louise (Eva Birthistle) experiences the occasional minor breakdown, it’s difficult to empathize with her and that impacts an otherwise wonderful performance. When we see her sprawled on the floor amid the daughter (Alice)’s things, it feels forced. Storytellers always fear losing an audience if things don’t play out at breakneck speed, and real empathy takes time to develop.
Amateur lessons in melodrama aside, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. My mind had already entangled Wake Wood with The Wicker Man and that’s heavyweight company. Paradoxically, I’m pleasantly surprised because I was expecting a lot from Wake Wood and it didn’t disappoint.
Pagan horror is an underused subgenre. When Alice (Ella Connolly) is resurrected we see the whole ritual of return, which involves finding a corpse, breaking the pelvis, severing the spine, covering it in mud or manure and burning it. It’s one of several satisfying and memorable scenes, satisfaction being key.
Too often in films and stories magical or pagan rites are glossed over because again, these scenes are difficult to write, especially if you’re just making it up. I can’t vouch for the kind of research that went into this one scene in particular, but it has the smell of esoteric authenticity. Or maybe that’s just the manure. Either way, because I was expecting that smell, when it actually does reach my nostrils, it’s satisfying.
The film also becomes self-aware in a good way. Because we know that our sympathetic characters are outsiders and that the townsfolk of Wake Wood engage in secretive rituals, when the townsfolk start doing things like entering the Daley’s home uninvited and sitting there in the dark, it’s unsettling. This is an old and necessary trope of horror: the violation of the homestead. There can be nothing sacred, there can be no safety in a horror film and this conjuring trick is performed well by the storytellers. We never really know who is on the Daley’s side up until the very end of the movie. We genuinely don’t know what the Wake Wood residents plan is for the newly resurrected Alice when they subtly separate her from her parents.
The ending is a bit off in terms of tone, ensuring a darkly happy ending for father Patrick (Gillen). The problem is the rest of the film is not a dark comedy, it’s tense and serious, the ending is inappropriately weird, and I'm saying this as an admitted weirdo. Still, it's well worth watching.
Wake Wood falls under the resurrected Hammer Films banner. Wake Wood is an Irish film, it was filmed in Ireland and directed by David Keating.
Rating: «««½ / 5
Rating: «««½ / 5