When last we left the burgeoning Woman in Black franchise (who knew???), Daniel Radcliffe had done his post-Potter penance and we horror fans had witnessed a decent, if derivative, old fashioned fright flick. Indeed, the concept of a haunted house is about as old as the notion of terror itself. Now, because no one asked for it and January 2015 is bereft of quality cinematic fare, we are treated to the tepid The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. Set during World War II and attempting to turn a single scary idea into a series, the follow-up doesn’t fail so much as falter, fizzle, and slowly fade away.
It’s 40 years later and London is under attack by German bombers, so schoolteachers Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) and their students are evacuated to the countryside, ending up at the notorious Eel Marsh House. It was here, back in the Edwardian era, that widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) discovered the unsettled spirit of Jennet Humfrye, the notorious “Woman in Black.” Slowly, the children become possessed by the evil spirit, leading Eve to seek the help of a local military man named Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine) who is desperate to redeem himself. That’s it, basically.
Okay — so The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is no Conjuring. It’s not even an Insidious and definitely not a Babadook. Instead, this is a workmanlike production which ups the art direction and design while limiting the fear to the tried and true “children in peril” dynamic. The WWII setup instantly puts us on the side of these kids, especially a little orphan named Edward (Oaklee Pendergat), and we want to see these twee wee ones safe and secure. Naturally, our pissed off spirit has other ideas in mind. That means we get boatloads of atmosphere and an equal amount of sudden shocks/jolts.
That’s the problem with films like The Woman in Black 2. They have a setup just perfect for a decent amount of dread, but then director Tom Harper telegraphs his jumps with obvious framing and soundtrack cues. Similarly, the situations scream “beware” as our little ones roam around the decrepit manor just looking for predictable shocks. The acting is uniformly solid, but the storytelling (both the first film, and this one, are based on works by Susan Hill) is so familiar, so “don’t go in there” obvious, that we stop feeling concern and start feeling conned. Aside from the backdrop, little else is new or novel here.
Even old Jennet is in dire need of a makeover. Her backstory, somewhat similar to those of Mama and The Orphanage, doesn’t really lend itself to further subplots and asides. She’s mad, wants to take it out on the innocent, and that’s about it. She cuts a sinister swatch, but she’s not a classic monster in the overall history of the genre. The aforementioned Guillermo Del Toro guided frightmare at least had a totally creepy ghoul at the center. Here, it’s all smoke and ghost mirrors.
All of which raises the question — why a sequel? The answer is obviously money. The original cost $15 million to make, and thanks to both the still-strong star power of Radcliffe as well as the Hammer label (the famed production company from England’s horror heyday is making a bit of a comeback as of late), it managed to bank over $127 million. But said novelty has long worn off, and the artist formerly known as J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard has gone on to bigger (if not necessarily better) things. Granted, it remains the highest grossing British horror film of all time, but did producers really think they could strike macabre gold twice? Again, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is not awful. It’s just average.