DEATH BECOMES HER
AS HAMMER SUMMONS A SEQUEL TO THE WOMAN IN BLACK, STEPHEN KELLY DISCOVERS ANGEL OF DEATH IS NO MORE CASH-IN...
The walls of Eel Marsh House are thick with decay, its woodwork rotting, its surfaces black with dead flies. Even as a Pinewood film set, it’s clear that death defines this place, that bad things happen here. This will come as no surprise to anyone who saw The Woman In Black haunt its halls in 2012, the hit adaptation of Susan Hill’s renowned novella in which a mysterious spectre drives children to their suicide. Fans will know, of course, that Hill wrapped up her original story back in 1983, but the reason why
SFX stands here today is that on film the woman in black is back for sequel Angel
Of Death – although, you’ll be glad to hear, not without Hill’s input. Adapted by Jane Goldman ( Kick Ass, X Men: First Class) and directed by James
Watkins, The Woman In Black was a big deal for not only Hammer Films, the legendary production company that had rebirthed five years previously, but British film in general, with it becoming the highest grossing Brit horror in 20 years.
That, no doubt, was a feat helped by it starring Daniel Radcliffe ( in his first role post‑Harry Potter) as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer whose task of arranging the sale of Eel Marsh House sees him caught up with the ghost of a woman grieving for her son – and who, in turn, exacts revenge on a child every time she is seen. Even so, it’s unfair to say that The Woman In Black became a success through star power alone. As a horror, it was informed by shadow and space, of creeping dread and traditional shivers – the sort that felt refreshing after years of torture porn and found footage. Fitting, really, considering
that Hill originally wrote the story as both a yearning for the subtleties of authors such as MR James, and as a reaction to ’ 80s American horror fiction that had become dominated by monsters and gore.
Hill herself, now 72, is the foundation on which Angel Of Death is built, as the new film was written from her original story outline. “Having Susan underpin it by giving her name to the story was pivotal,” explains Simon Oakes, who took over as CEO of Hammer Films in 2007. “I approached her before the first film came out, and asked if she had ever thought about writing another story on The Woman In Black. She said she had thought about it but had always dismissed it. As a novelist, she didn’t want to create a long- running saga.
“But then she got inspired while she was writing something else in Norfolk and saw these abandoned World War II air bases. She thought about Eel Marsh House being requisitioned as a school or a hospital when the Blitz was at its height and the decision was taken to evacuate children to houses in the countryside and then she began to roll with it. It’s terrific to have her as part of this. It gives it a legitimacy.”
From the bones of Hill’s idea, Hammer Films invited writers such as Jon Croker, a story editor on the first film, to pitch how they would flesh it out.
“The outline was only a couple of pages long,” explains Croker, “and I had to pitch how I would expand that, this core idea of World War II and old houses that were being requisitioned by the government for various uses, and continue it. I came up with
“Suggested fear, dread, suspense… It’s not about making torture porn, it’s grown up storytelling punctuated by terror”
the idea of Eve. On a very simple level, the first film had a male hero, so I wanted to give the second film a female hero to make it different. Also, The Woman In Black has these themes of motherhood, and I thought it would be interesting to see that from a female perspective.”
Eve Parkins, played by Phoebe Fox, is a young school teacher who, along with Helen McCrory’s headteacher Jean Hogg, is tasked with evacuating a group of children out of London during the Blitz. They are, of course, taken to that old, empty and dilapidated estate called Eel Marsh House, cut- off off by a causeway from the mainland. One by one, the children begin to act strangely – especially the recently orphaned Edward, who seems to have struck up a sinister friendship with the ghost upstairs. Eve, with the help of local military commander Harry ( Jeremy Irvine), discovers that the group has awoken a force even more terrifying than London’s air raids.
“Susan’s idea of setting it in World War II and bringing the children more into the fore immediately brought in new things,” says Croker. “There’s that dark underside of the Blitz spirit, for example. I also wanted to make the children proper characters, whereas in the first film they are in the background, dying, and you don’t get to know any of them. I thought, ‘ let’s bring them front and centre.’
That would be interesting but possibly makes it much more disturbing as you get to know these children before they’re brutally offed by an evil ghost.
“Another thing that felt attractive to me was that we avoid the biggest problem with horror sequels, which is ‘ Why go back?’ Even in the greatest horror sequel of all time, Aliens, you still go, ‘ Really, would you?’ So at least it wasn’t that, because this is set decades after the first film and has a new set of characters to explore the Woman In Black character through, who I feel there was much more to get out of.”
There is, of course, a question that hangs over Angel In Death like a chill: is a Woman
In Black sequel really necessary? After all, horror sequels hardly have form for being brilliant and surely the combination of a new, relatively unknown cast, a new writer and, in Tom Harper ( Peaky Blinders, Misfits), a new director is bound to ring the cash- in bells for any cynical horror fan?
“There aren’t many second horror films that are that good,” admits Croker, “and that’s always a bit of pressure. Tom [ Harper] and I, though, have gone through the script and said, ‘ Okay, is there anything in this that seems like a repeat from the first one? If there is, is there any way to put a twist on that or make it feel like an embellishment? Or is there anything we do want to go back to the first one and nod to, but then move on?’”
“Our ambition has to be for it to be as good if not better than the first, and also different,” agrees Oakes. “The new creative team have set the bar very high. There’s freshness, fearlessness, a point to prove. We’ve been very fortunate. Jon’s terrifically brave and fearless and has a real clear idea on what he wants to do. Obviously moving to another period instead of moving from the last frame of the first movie means there’s a completely new canvas. It’s totally its own animal.”
And what does that mean for its scares?
“We tried to create a mood of fear all the way through,” says Croker. “And if you sustain that level of fear, then you can tell an interesting story. Also, if you manage to create a sense of unease in the audience, the simplest things can be the best scares. I am very proud of some of the ideas here. It was, ‘ Yeah, can we make this any nastier?’ ‘ What if there’s barbed wire?’ then you think, ‘ Oh my word, what are we doing?’ But it’s all very tastefully done, hopefully.”
Indeed. In 2012, The Woman In Black was deemed “too scary” by the British Board of Film Classification, who originally gave the film a 15 rating despite it being PG- 13 in America. And even when tweaks were made for a 12A certificate, audience complaints inspired the BBFC to amend their guidelines to take into account a film’s tone and theme. Has that influenced just how far Angel Of
Death can go? “It was a 12A but look, we respect that decision,” says Oakes. “But if kids are playing
Grand Theft Auto, they should be able to watch horror. But it’s less about severed limbs with us, it’s more suggested fear, dread, suspense – and that’s a psychological impact on young minds that you have to be careful of. It’s not about making torture porn. It’s grown up storytelling punctuated by terror.”
Phoebe Fox takes over from Daniel Radcliffe as the lead.
That window was a perfect spot for stargazing. Eve knew
she should never have coat with paired the
blue a green dress. He was determined not to take his eyes off that spider, even if it meant he could never leave the room.