The early scenes in this sequel to “The Women in Black” are promising and had me believing that, once again, the producers at the restored Hammer Film Productions had pulled it off. This time, the setting is London in 1941, as war is tearing the city apart. We may be watching a horror movie sequel, but the establishing scenes are so impressively staged, it made me think of John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory.” We’re introduced to the kindly Eve (Phoebe Fox), who takes care of a group of refugee children as their homes crumble around them. She heads off with the children and two other adults to the creepy house from the first movie. Eve is told it’s the only place to offer shelter away from the war, though the place is clearly bad news.
We’re never given a satisfying reason why this moldy, random location is chosen over, say, a dungeon or a sewer, which would’ve been more preferable. Nevertheless, the kids settle in, while Eve goes on a nightly walk and investigates a repetitive thudding noise. She finds, in the basement, a rocking chair that’s been creaking back and forth. All by itself.
I thought the 2012 version of “The Woman in Black” that starred Daniel Radcliffe was terrific, a solid throwback to classic haunted house movies like “The Innocents” and the original version of “The Haunting.” A nice touch was how it was produced by Hammer Film Productions, the company famous for their iconic horror films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. You knew you were watching a Hammer movie when the leads were all classically trained, Shakespearean actors and the blood, which flowed like water, resembled a melted orange crayon. Restoring a classic movie studio like Hammer is a gift for horror movie fans, as is helming a ghost story minus graphic violence but wall-to-wall with jump out of seat scares.
One of the key problems with “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” (what a charming title), is that it needs someone with Radcliffe’s presence to center it. Fox is an appealing lead but can’t carry this. She’s so plucky in her initial scenes, you half expect her to summon all the kids into her bed to sing “The Lonely Goatherd.” Eve’s very belated realization, that something very wrong is going on, is both laughable and hard to swallow. No one else in the cast stands out, though I noticed the title role is played by Leanne Best. I suspect we’ll be seeing her at future horror movie conventions.
The overextended climax has some big jolts but most of these are cheap jump scares. If you watch this with the volume turned down, it may not be as frightening. Once this handsome but mostly dull sequel moves past it’s elaborate set-up, it does everything we’ve seen before. There’s a Renfield-like character added to the story that, oddly, goes nowhere. Had we cared more about Eve, the creepy kids she’s taking care of, or even The Woman in Black herself, this might have worked. The original had performances by Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds that anchored the film, while this one has bad dream scenes that play like a poor man’s “Nightmare on Elm St.”
I haven’t seen the 1989 UK TV movie version of “The Woman in Black,” but I’ve heard its really terrifying. The 2012 adaptation had a well cast leading man, spooky atmosphere and a story that poured on the dread and intrigue. The sequel has the atmosphere but lacks everything else.