Good Thoughts Can Conquer All, Apparently
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death proves that it takes way more than a Gothic mansion and a creepy child to make a good horror film. By relying heavily on these two conventions—and hoping they will single-handedly prove successful in creeping us out—the movie is not more than a reiteration of the age-old haunted house formula. It spends way more time exploring its setting than uncovering the object of its title: the woman in black only makes a fleeting appearance, as though aware of the camera’s disinterest in her existence.
It begins in the World War II context, which to me sounds like the perfect way to frame a horror story. A young woman called Eve (Phoebe Fox) joins headmistress Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory, or Narcissa Malfoy) in a plan to evacuate schoolchildren to a safer place. They are taken to the abandoned mansion of Crythin Glifford, where they are expected to carry on their lessons and lives. The journey is by bus, slicing through the fog. Nothing is reassuring; not the driver, not the surrounding forest, not the house they come to meet. How is that more comforting than the underground shelter they have escaped from, I do not know.
There is nonetheless some credit to be given to Eve: she does question, although half-heartedly (as though self-aware of her role as the heroine of a horror film who must be dimwitted in order for the story to carry on) their presence in this cold and damp place. Headmistress Jean would have none of it, so Eve and the children must accept their fate, which is obviously pretty bleak.
But really, all of the children seem pretty cool with the house—all except one of course. His name is Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) and he seems unable to speak. Anyway, little Edward, in his silence is the odd one out. The other children bully him, while Eve takes a liking to him. We soon learn that she had to give up her child a long time ago, so her fondness for Edward who is motherless is understandable if not cliché. Much like Aidan Keller in The Ring or the countless other odd children in horror, he knows there is something lurking around. Combined with Eve’s presentiments about the house, the two are bound by their ability to feel the Woman in Black’s presence, and ultimately overcome her authority.
Yet, before they do the movie must take us through some scares. I deemed them all unsuccessful. Eve’s expeditions to the cellar are more idiotic than courageous, especially when carried out in the depth of night. Edward’s drawings are too much reminiscent of the Aidan Keller’s depiction of Samara in The Ring, minus the creepiness. The hole above his head, the one peeking directly into the fateful haunted room, is nowhere near exploited enough. Once, we do see a dark shape crawling out of it, but it is too brief to be frightening. The nightmares that plague Eve may perhaps get a pass; as far as nightmares go, they manage to achieve the uncanny with the nurses walking by, oblivious to her presence. The soundscape must also get its share of acknowledgment. The old adage set by The Blair Witch Project still holds true: sometimes, hearing is much more frightening than seeing. The noises around the house are more effective than the appearance of the Woman herself, which we welcome merely because it is indicative of the movie nearing its end at last.
Before she comes into the picture, she kills two children and drives them out of the house. Naturally, headmistress Jean acknowledges that there is something wrong. With the help of war pilot Harry Burnstrow (who has an almost heart-wrenching story about losing his compatriots to the sea, thus being afraid of drowning himself) they find refuge in his simulated airfield. Of course, the spirit follows suit. Edward disappears, obviously abducted from the underground shelter by the powerful ghost. Eve, for some unknown reason, persists in trying to save him—it’s probably the mother instinct in her, which makes her guess that he has been taken back to the house itself.
The finale must take place in the very mansion the movie took so long to revere. It is the most cliché of endings, one that has our well-meaning Eve decide to sacrifice her life for Edward… Until ex-pilot Harry Burnstrow shows his pretty face again. Diving into the water, braving his phobia, he dies to let them live. Both Eve and Edward resurface from the marshes’ depth, learning that ‘good thoughts can conquer all,’ a motto I had to adopt readily in order to finish the movie.
As you might have guessed it, there cannot be an end to the franchise, not yet at least. We jump forward to a nicer scene. Poor Harry has become a picture sitting in Eve’s living room, a constant reminder of his courage. Edward utters his first and only line in the movie, which might be the most jump-worthy moment in the entire thing. The apartment is light and pretty, a nice contrast to the old decrepit house. It is sunny outside. Everything is pointing towards a happy ending. (Edward is speaking!) Yet, it must conclude on another cliché. The camera moves away from our two protagonists, creeping towards Harry’s picture. It is not a tribute to the fallen hero, but a reminder of how useless his death was. As it closes up on the photograph, the Woman in Black’s face appears as a reflection on the glass and shatters it to pieces. Literally nothing is satisfying in that ending, not even our two protagonists’ being safe and sound. In fact, it is almost insulting that they are, considering how they have behaved throughout the movie.
If there were a third one coming up, I would usually proscribe to avoid it. But if you are a fan of horror much like I am, you may not have a choice. The scarcity of horror films has blunted our selectivity; we’ll take whatever is offered to us. This is the mindset with which I entered Woman in Black: Angel of Death and it is the mindset with which I have left it. The movie will satisfy the basic needs of the horror fan, but it will never do more than that.