Wake Wood

Dir. David Keating

In an attempt to cope with their grief after the death of their young daughter, a couple move from the city to a remote Irish village called Wake Wood. Their acceptance as members of the close-knit community leads them to the discovery of an ancient pagan ritual practiced by the people there in order to help ease the sudden loss of a loved one. The tradition, secretly preserved for many centuries, enables the grief-stricken to bring a deceased person back from the dead for a period of three days within one year of their passing. But the ritual is bound by strict rules and conditions, which, if broken, demand a terrible price be paid…

Wake Wood is the latest horror film from the legendary and recently revitalized Hammer Films. It is also this writer’s first taste of their latest output - having not yet seen The Resident or Let Me In, and not counting the lacklustre web series Beyond the Rave. It effortlessly evokes the spirit and eerily off-kilter tone of the studio’s earlier classics. A stately, old fashioned slice of horror, Wake Wood could have easily been made in the 60s or 70s, its slow-burning story takes its time to set the scene, introduce believable characters before plummeting into hellish territory and blood-soaked terror.

Combining elements of various ‘folk horror’ titles such as The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan’s Claw, with the grieving parental nightmares of Pet Semetary and The Monkey’s Paw, Wake Wood boasts a strong story imbued with the haunting central concept: what would you do to spend a little more time with a dead loved one? That the loved one is, in this case a child, renders the notion just that little bit more provocative. Unfortunately Wake Wood never really explores the debate that surely enshrouds around such a weighty concept. The characters of Patrick and Louise feel a little underdeveloped; they never really question their actions or the oft hinted at consequences, they just go with the morbid flow. As soon as they are told they have the opportunity to spend three days with their dead daughter, they just take it. No discussion, no painstaking analysis of the rights and wrongs of taking such actions, or what it all means in the grand scheme of things.

However, this could of course just be testament to their devotedness as parents, that they wouldn’t question one thing about being able to spend several more days with their dead daughter. The film still manages to captivate with the striking central idea and a clammy tension begins to fester before long. The cold, eschewed atmosphere instantly recalls Hammer Horror titles of yore, as does the contrast of the mundane with the intrusion of the otherworldly upon it. The odd pagan/occult practices and rural Irish setting add a further element of otherworldliness. Keating directs the action in an unfussy, even coldly detached manner – perhaps hinting that when dealing with such potentially spiky matters of the heart, one needs to distance one’s self from them. While Wake Wood doesn’t look particularly interesting, it is this very ordinariness that makes the later events in the story stand out so much. How such things could be taking place in such a mundane, banal little village is chilling to comprehend. It is this juxtaposition that makes Wake Wood such a powerful film.

The film was shot in Ireland – with parts of Donegal forming the village of the actually-not-very-Irish-sounding Wake Wood. Ireland is the perfect setting for such a tale, as many far flung little places still exist where a mystical past encroaches heavily on contemporary society. Such remote places exist where families have lived their entire lives in the same town, amongst the same people, viewing outsiders with contempt and suspicion, as much as outsiders view them with suspicion. The sense of community in Wake Wood is strikingly similar to that of the community of Summer Isle in The Wicker Man – all knowing glances and pinched lips. At least Brendan McCarthy’s screenplay doesn’t paint the locals with the usual wide-eyed broad stokes. Not completely, anyway. Indeed, Wake Wood skulks in the formidable shadow of The Wicker Man, with its incestuously tight-knit community and ritualistic sacrifices. This tradition of the town’s, and the ritual at its dark heart, is never explained. All we are told is that it is a practise the villagers have secretly preserved for many centuries. For them, rather disturbingly, it is common practice, an everyday thing - as such the film maintains a robust air of mystery. The practice enables the villagers to say a final farewell to their departed before they make their way to the spirit world. The ceremony itself and the ‘rebirth’ it culminates in are chillingly created and unsettling in their weirdness, completely at odds with the surroundings.

Eva Birthistle plays a similar character to the one she portrayed in The Children, a doting mother weighed down with regrets, while Aiden Gillen struggles to breathe much life into the rather bland Patrick. Timothy Spall is as reliable as ever in the role of the head of the village, but the standout performance is that of Ella Connolly as Alice, the ‘living-dead’ daughter; equal parts quietly haunting, tragic, innocent and doe-eyed malevolence.

Wake Wood is an intelligent and thought provoking film which manages to quietly chill the bones as much as it stirs the emotions; all the while prodding at seriously dark questions. A very welcome return from Hammer.

Vertigo Films will be releasing Wake Wood (cert. 18) at UK cinemas on 25th March 2011 and the DVD release (£15.99) will follow on 28th March 2011 courtesy of Momentum Pictures. Special Features include: interview with cast and crew; deleted scenes; trailer; teaser trailer.


Aylmer said…
I haven't seen any of the new Hammer films yet either, but I can't wait to see this. The Wicker Man/folk horror vibe is so enticing.

For me, the current UK horror scene is probably the most original and vibrant on the planet. I can't count the number of fantastic UK horror movies I've seen in the last 5 years. Recently very impressed by OUTCAST, also dying to see ATTACK THE BLOCK. Rule Brittania!
James said…
Yeah, there is SO much great stuff at the moment. I really want to check out Outcast - have heard really good things about it.
Technically, Wake Wood is actually an Irish film though!
Pax Romano said…

Way off topic here - but I just spent the better part of my afternoon reading your reviews of the Friday the 13th films - terrific stuff (I had no idea that "The New Blood" was known as FriGAY the 13th).

Just wanted to thank you for providing me with an hour's worth of entertaining and informative reading. Dare I say it? The reviews were better than most of the films.

James said…
Thanks Pax! Glad you liked 'em. That was a fun month. What was left of brain after watching the whole series in quick succession enjoyed pondering the excesses of La Voorhees... ;)
Aylmer said…
Irish? Didn't know that. Now I'm even more intrigued. As far as Irish horror, I skipped Paddy Breathnach's SHROOMS and didn't like RED MIST much at all, but ISOLATION was a superb monster movie! I honestly don't know if I've seen any others?
James said…
Yup! Cast, crew and funding were all Irish. In terms of Irish Horror cinema - there isn't really that much - the film industry here is still quite 'fledgling' - especially when it comes to genre stuff. Check out this wonderful article by Kim Newman for a rough breakdown. Yes, a few of the titles are tenuously Irish, but he raises a fair few interesting points... http://irishgothichorrorjournal.homestead.com/kim.html
Paul Synnott said…
Great to see this review, I've seen Wakewood and Outcast and was really impressed. They're rich in magic, rituals and really atmospheric. I Loved the resurrection/birth moment in wakewood, liked the parallel ideas of cutting into the mother's and the dead man's skin to give birth to the child.

I agree, the locals were not as cliched as you'd expect in a horror film. One of the creepiest moment for me was seeing Tim Spall in the couple's living room when they returned home...

This was overall a very creative work, and there wasn't a strobe light, flashy editing, or over colour-corrected moment throughout the film. As Kermode said in his review recently, it's not perfect, but I think it is very self contained & earnest enough to be a success... Likewise, Outcast, I thought had some brilliant ideas and originality...
James said…
Thanks for commenting Paul.
Yes, the moment when the couple return home to find Mr Spall in their living room is extremely creepy. And that he excuses his intrusion as being part and parcel of living in such a remote, isolated and 'tight knit' community adds to the creepiness!
I still need to check out Outcast - heard nothing but good things about it! My expectations are by now, really rather high... ;)

Hope you're well Paul. How goes the film making?
Paul Synnott said…
Thanks James, yes not too bad, just trying to write a short story at the moment. No new films yet, but my 15 minute horror film is all storyboarded...
James said…
Good luck with the short story, Paul - and keep me posted about your horror film. :oD

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