Purchasing a movie without having first hand knowledge (or a trusted recommendation) is often called a “blind buy.” As I mature in taste and cynicism (and as my wallet begins to atrophy), blind buys are becoming a thing of the past on my part. It wasn’t the modest price tag of the Wake Wood blu-ray that encouraged me to make the buy (blindly), but instead a rather curious quote on the cover copy: “[Five Stars] An instant folk horror classic.” Folk horror? A contemporary film belonging to the very small subgenre of British horror film that includes such classics as The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)? Where do I sign up? Sadly, “truth in advertising” is a bit of an oxymoron.
Wake Wood is a movie that can’t commit. It has all the parts: two more than competent lead actors, foreboding (but beautiful) rustic Irish scenery, a mysterious town complete with pagan cult. But what it lacks is a writer and director who have any idea what kind of movie they want to make.
The setup is promising enough. Bereaved parents (Aidan Gillen, playing a much less smarmy guy than his characters on The Wire and Game of Thrones, and Eva Birthistle) move to a quiet suburb after their young daughter’s untimely death, but once there are presented with a way that they can have their daughter back for three more days. There are rules to the pagan ritual of course (there are always rules: don’t feed her after midnight, she doesn’t like bright light…wait wrong movie) chief among them is that the ritual can only be performed as long as the little girl has been dead for less than a year. I don’t think it’s meant to be a secret, but little Alice has been dead a year and a few days. If that constitutes a spoiler than Wake Wood features the worst poker faces in the history of cinema, because when asked how long their daughter has been dead Gillen and Birthistle’s characters begin their downward spiral into dimwitism, and they take the film with them.
In the film’s cinematic forbearers, when character motivations were hazy or the narrative relied heavily on dream logic, it was okay because those films didn’t insist upon the reality of their universe. In Wake Wood, when characters make inexplicable decisions, don’t communicate vital information to each other and are given incongruous and sketchy motivations, it’s just lazy filmmaking. Wake Wood wants the metered-pace of a seventies-flavored throwback in its first two acts and then switches to a slicker, more modern, stalk-and-kill for the last half hour. It just doesn’t work. The film feels like two separate movies cut together, one is a gory, gruesome and completely over the top evil kid on a rampage picture (which I am in no way opposed to). The other half is a slow-burn character-driven art-horror flick where the two protagonists are unlike-ably stupid (or aloof enough that we can’t justify their brain-dead decision making) and the evil pagan cult is actually fairly benign. Wake Wood may have been able to overcome this unholy union if its foundation were a stronger script, but alas.
What’s most frustrating about the film is not the promise it possessed in theory, but the charms it possesses in reality. There is a lot to like in Wake Wood. The sequences with the cult are enjoyable in that they recall older, better films. There is some genuinely pretty cinematography and it’s the first film since the reformation of Hammer Studios to carry at least a bit of the “feel” of classic British horror (although it’s not the best, that honor lies with the very good, but somewhat redundant Let Me In) but these glimmers of quality are overshadowed by the film’s noncommittal.
So “an instant folk horror classic” it is not, but an above-average
—if narrativly messy—addition to a Netflix queue as long as your expectations aren’t set too high.
I believe it goes without saying, but if you haven’t seen the weird and wonderful classic that is the original The Wicker Man,you really should.
Also, if you want to expand your “folk horror” repertoire I strongly recommend you seek out the R2 release of Blood on Satan’s Claw (it’s a bad title, but possibly my favorite Brit horror movie ever. Period).
Also, I’ve been pretty rough on this movie so if you want a second (kinder) opinion then my buddy and yours Johnny Boots has you covered over at Freddy in Space.