Hammer Films and Susan Hill start off 2015 with The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death a sequel to the Daniel Radcliffe ghostly feature from 2012. Tom Harper steps in to direct while the story shift to 1941 shortly after the German Air force bombs London forcing a group of orphaned children and survivors to seek refuge in a mansion in the country. The mansion is the infamous Eel Marsh House. Atmospheric and creepy, the movie never elevates to the terror and haunting fear of the first film but contains a thick cover of dread throughout. Phoebe Fox stars as Eve Parkins who is haunted by her past as well as the supernatural forces living in the house. The story suffers from reaching for a number of different emotional beats but never truly achieving any of them to their fullest potential and it forgets to focus on the titular character leaving the “Woman in Black” in the shadows far too long. Stronger than most January releases, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is a near miss that struggles to satisfy its target audience.
Leaping ahead 40 years from The Woman in Black (2012), The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death follows a small group of refugees to the Eel Marsh House after London lies under siege during WWII. Head Mistress Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) and teacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) question the safety of the house after they arrive with their students in two, including a recently orphaned boy, Edward (Oaklee Pendergast). Eve begins flirting with a young pilot, Harry Brunstow (Jeremy Irvine), whom they met on their train ride in and is stationed nearby. Before too long Eve and Edward begin seeing glimpses of the shadowy woman in the darkest corners of the house. Death and horror soon follow. The story escalates until Eve, Edward and Harry’s stories all collide with the legend of “The Woman in Black.”
The movie’s biggest strength is the cast itself with Phoebe Fox proving a terrific lead, especially fitting for the period of the film’s setting. She has a charming subtle beauty that suits the school teacher character and she brings a thinly veiled sadness to the role as well. The script from Jon Croker takes advantage of this character trait repeatedly referring to what lies behind her soft but sad smile. Her affection for the school kids, especially Edward, is genuine and heartfelt with her attraction to Harry woven naturally into the narrative. Helen McCrory is perfect as the Headmistress with her chiseled, worn features and stern temperament. Jeremy Irvine makes for a solid male lead but struggles with the character’s more critical internal conflicts never fully investing the audience in his fear of water or shame in his “assignment” at the airfield. Oaklee Pendergast is terrific as young Edward who is stricken mute with grief over the sudden loss of his parents facing the horrors of the Eel Marsh House.
Sadly what the film lacks is enough of the “Woman in Black.” While her presence is always felt, she is never physically given enough screen time to match the terror she brought to the first film. Her influence on the children is never as strongly felt as it was in the original either. The house itself take center stage and, even then, only a few rooms at that. Relegated to being hidden in the shadows or just out of focus, the Woman in Black lacks the fright she promises in the title, “Angel of Death.” This weakens the film’s impact greatly for horror fans, but the stronger character moments may prove a highlight for cinema goers looking for a distraction after the hectic holiday season. The film also struggles with the internal logic and back story of “The Woman in Black” as well and fumbles the intensity needed to capture the fear desired during the final act.
Director Tom Harper brings strong composition and a cool color pallet to The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. Together with Cinematographer George Steel, they craft a well looking film worthy of Hammer Films (for those who are avid fans of the famous horror film production house). The locations are bleak and sad with the house itself becoming as big a character as any living thing around. The shift in focus and purposeful composition draw out the dread and creepy atmosphere needed to bring this story to the screen. Harper seems to work better in closer quarters however, when the scenes shift to the moors or to the air field, the tone slips and the narrative begins to fall away making for confusing and meandering visuals. But when he is focused on the characters, especially Eve and Edward, his direction often makes the film stronger than the story itself would suggest.
The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is a solid but flawed early horror entry for 2015. The film is creepy and maintains a tone of dread and despair throughout but never rises to fear and authentic scares. The screams the film does produce are usually derived from jump scares and loud sound design. The movie may make the audience’s skin crawl but it will likely have trouble making their hearts race or knuckles whiten. It is a roller coaster ride that forgets the initial scream-filled drop. The main problem is that the Woman in Black is rarely seen and, when she is, it is a flash in a mirror or hidden in shadow or a soft focused background. The film rests on the atmospheric direction from Tom Harper, the eerie locations and the strong cast lead by Phoebe Fox. January cinema often offers far less quality in its horror; even at its worst, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is better than typical ghostly tales.
2.5 out of 5