I was a bit anxious about seeing Wake Wood. Not because I thought it would prove unbearably frightening. I’m a big Northern lad who raises a single, resolute digit to such concerns. No, my worry was that this story of a couple who are allowed to resurrect their dead daughter for three days in order to say their goodbyes properly, would prove so gut wrenchingly upsetting that I would flee the cinema in tears. I can cope with scary but displays of heartfelt emotion? No sir. But nonetheless, whether it was to be tears or scares I was in for, I was really looking forward to Wake Wood. Sadly, despite several positives, the film doesn’t ever really illicit either.
The reason for my optimism prior to seeing this film was the strength of its premise. Louise and Patrick (Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen), a couple recovering from the death of their young daughter Alice, attempt to start a new life in the quiet Irish village of Wake Wood, where the husband takes over as the local vet. Through a series of chance events they discover that the locals can revive deceased loved ones but only for three days. After that time the dead relative must return to the afterlife. So they bring their daughter back but, due to a deceit on their part, the little girl isn’t all that she should be.
It’s an idea that works so well because you immediately identify with the parents. Who wouldn’t want to bring a loved one back from the dead, even if it was only for a couple of days? Ah, but then who’s to say you’d be happy to let them go back? Understandably, Louise and Patrick are reluctant to do so, much to the chagrin of the villagers.
It’s at this point that the film fails to commit strongly to one of two possible paths. Either the little girl should become something to be feared, as her horrified parents realise that this isn’t the daughter they cherished. Or the creepy villagers should be feared, as they set about reclaiming the daughter so that they can preserve this deal with the Devil that they seem to have struck. But in half heartedly opting to tread somewhere between the two, Wake Wood loses its power to scare and unsettle. The villagers seem a bit threatening but then appear perfectly reasonable (under the circumstances) while Alice (Ella Connelly) is just too adorable to become a rampant killing machine. When she refuses to return to the grave I thought ‘Well, of course not bless her, she wants to be with her Mum & Dad’ when really I should have been thinking ‘Oh for the love of mercy, kill it! KILL IT!’
Also, the film fails to pack the emotional punch I was expecting, this in spite of rather than because of the performances, which are all fine. This may be down to the apparent readiness of all concerned to accept that bringing Alice back was a mistake but I was expecting a bit more unconditional love on the part of her parents, the sort that argues that your child isn’t a wrong ‘un just because they choose to wander the woods at night terrifying local village folk.
However, there are some good moments. The lead up to the resurrection of Alice is involving and spooky and the resurrection scene itself, where Alice returns from the dead via the utilisation of another corpse, is incredibly effective and, bizarrely, convinces as something that looks like it might just work. As I’ve said the actors are all first class. Timothy Spall is great as Arthur the village elder and both Birthistle and Gillen are effective as the grieving parents. And the film finishes quite strongly with the sort of unsettling dénouement that would have suited the TV series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.
It’s not that Wake Wood is a bad film but, given the strength of its premise, it really does feel like a missed opportunity. It’s a ghost story but one that isn’t really that scary. However, it does try something that not many horror films do and that is to explore real emotions and real loss in a story that despite it’s flaws has enough going for it to be worth a look.
Some of Wake Wood’s pre-screening buzz was that it has a lot in common with 1973’s The Wicker Man. Fans of Robert Hardy’s classic would do well to ignore such comparisons as they will inevitably lead to disappointment. However, Wake Wood deserves credit for attempting to tell a story with some degree of originality, style and emotional depth.