I went to see The Woman in Black: Angel of Death on Friday, having been so impressed by its 2012 predecessor starring Daniel Radcliffe, and I have to say…this sequel encapsulates just what is wrong with contemporary supernatural horror in the cinema. I’ve seen a lot of it – I have to, since my thesis is all about these films. But The Woman in Black: Angel of Death just proves that this particular cycle of supernatural horror has lost all pretence at subtlety. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in the post that follows, but The Woman in Black: Angel of Death isn’t exactly a film that relies on narrative twists and turns.
In a nutshell, The Woman in Black (2012) told the story of Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), sent to the isolated Eel Marsh House sometime in the 1900s to sort through the personal papers of the late Alice Drablow. While there, he encounters a ghostly presence. Every time the Woman in Black is seen, a child in the nearby village dies in some gruesome fashion. It seems the children are persuaded to kill themselves by the Woman. Arthur investigates and discovers that Alice Drablow had a son who died in a tragic accident. The problem is, Nathaniel was not Alice’s son, but rather he was the son of Alice’s sister, the unmarried Jennet Humphrye. Already unhinged after the forcible removal of her son, Jennet’s grief turns to rage when Nathaniel drowns, and she blames her sister. After she kills herself, she returns as a force of nature capable of stealing local children. Arthur tries to lay her to rest, but fails.
Fast forward to the 1940s, and two teachers, Mrs Hogg (Helen McCrory) and Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), are taking a group of schoolchildren to Eel Marsh House to keep them safe during the Blitz. I won’t support with your intelligence as to pass any comments regarding the wisdom of sending children to a house associated with such a legend. The local village is now abandoned, and the Woman in Black develops an affection for one of the children, an orphan named Edward (Oaklee Pendergast). The film essentially becomes a tussle for Edward between Eve and the Woman, and naturally two children are dispatched during the process. RAF pilot Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine) is added to provide an adult male counterpoint to the film’s two female teachers. Who will win the day, Eve or the Woman?
Yet the true villain of The Woman in Black 2 is Backstory. Yes, it becomes so important to the narrative, so all consuming that it becomes a solid presence in the film. Everyone has a Backstory that seems to be something they need to overcome, or it becomes their sole motivating force throughout the story. Eve feels compelled to save Edward from Jennet’s clutches because she lost her own child – she couldn’t just want to save him because, as his teacher, his safety is her responsibility? Or because it’s the right thing to do?
It seems instructive at this point to compare the first film and the sequel. Let’s look at Arthur Kipps. He investigates the secrets of the house because it’s his job to go through Alice Drablow’s papers. He uncovers the family secret almost by accident, and when he realises who the Woman in Black is, feels compelled to help her. He has Backstory, in the form of the death of his wife, but he wants to help reunite Jennet with her son because he thinks it’ll bring them closure, and because he wants to lay Jennet to rest before his own son can arrive in Crythin Gifford. By contrast, Eve’s Backstory makes her almost hysterical in places, and it seems to be the only way the screenwriters could get the Woman to target her. Why? The Woman in Black was shown in the previous film to be an indiscriminate force, taking children no matter who saw her. This made her frightening – there was no rhyme or reason to her appearances, and the lack of logic or predictability elevated her beyond the status of a mere spectre. There were no laws governing her behaviour which meant there was no obvious way to stop her other than staying away so you couldn’t see her. In this film, she’s given an air of predatory intelligence seemingly at odds to her previous appearances. In one scene, the Woman pursues them away from the house, kicking off a veritable visual feast of special effects worthy of a KISS gig to force one of them, any of them, to see her so that she can claim another child. It’s a weird inversion of the childhood belief that if you can’t see a monster, it can’t harm you. In Jennet’s case, if she wants to harm you, then she’ll find a way to make you see.
Eel Marsh House, so integral to the first film, has become a dilapidated wreck, a visual demonstration of how much Jennet has disintegrated since Arthur Kipps’ well meaning intervention forty years earlier. Already unhinged, born as she is from sheer rage at the loss of her son, and her punishment at being unable to fit within the narrow confines of Victorian sexuality, her rage has now become vindictive. Eve is initially set her up as her double – both are women who have had children taken from them due to social pressures. Later Eve is cast as a double to Alice, Jennet’s sister and the cause of her son’s death, and therefore a target for the Woman’s rage. She seeks to ‘punish’ Eve by taking Edward. To me, this is unnecessary, since the Woman would have been just as potent had she not been viciously targeting Eve, but simply trying to replace her dead son with Edward. This reading would have been supported by her behaviour, exacerbated by her tendency to target those children who have wronged Edward in some way. She’s not just an angel of death, she becomes his avenging angel. In a more intelligent horror film, the Woman could have become the projected personnification of Edward’s own paranoia, but sadly those days of horror seem long gone.
I loved Jennet in the first film, but in The Woman in Black 2, Hammer seem to have confused her with Kayako from Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), while her costume design is based more upon the Bride in Black from Insidious (2010)! You can probably guess the ending, and despite its largely negative reception by critics, there will no doubt be a third instalment, and Jennet will be further reduced to a dull bogeyman, instead of the potent force she was in 2012. It must be borne in mind that Hammer were a company based on the franchising of monsters, making nine films about Dracula between 1958 and 1974, seven films about Frankenstein between 1957 and 1974, and four films about mummies between 1959 and 1971. Yet do we need another monster franchise where the only way to generate suspense is to show people wandering around in the dark, just so the director can add cheap jump scares by making the spectre go “Boo”?
In essence, this is my problem with contemporary supernatural horror. It’s the lack of subtlety. This particular strain of horror was born as far back as the Graveyard School of poetry in the mid eighteenth century, and influenced the original Gothic texts such as The Castle of Otranto (1764). The original supernatural tales were creepy, weird, and downright unsettling – you only need to read ‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman or pretty much anything by M. R. James to see that. Move into the twentieth century and watch Night of the Demon (1957), The Innocents (1961), or The Haunting (1963). Hell, even watch The Sixth Sense (1999) – there should be an air of unease, a tension between the existence of this world and the next within the same physical space. James Wan got it right in 2013 with The Conjuring, and its pointless prequel, Annabelle (2014), suffered massively by having a director who didn’t understand suspense or subtlety. Backstories are held up as the be-all and end-all, as if humans aren’t capable of reacting to a crisis based on their own moral compass, or simply the situation at hand. In The Conjuring, the family simply move into the ‘wrong’ house, and have to deal with the consequences. Backstory is irrelevant. So why is it so heavy-handed in The Woman in Black: Angel of Death?
Having said that, horror always moves in cycles. The ‘assault on the family’ films of the 1970s were replaced by the endless slashers of the 1980s, which gave way in the early 2000s to the slew of titles inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense. I’d argue that it was the success of Paranormal Activity in 2009 that kickstarted the current trend for supernatural films – which is ironic since the first PA film succeeded precisely because you spent much of the film waiting for something to happen. With any luck the studios will stop underestimating the intelligence of their audience and reintroduce subtlety, nuance and elegance to a strand of horror that was always about what you imagined, as opposed to what you saw.