Thursday, October 20, 2011

30 Days of Fright - 19: Wake Wood

The absence of Irish horror is something that concerns me greatly. There are loads of reasons why an Irish horror should be good but equally there are far too many reasons why no-one in Ireland should attempt it. But anyway, it's been a while since the last disappointment on the Irish horror scene so another crack at it was long overdue....

Don't fuck this up now, Donnelly!

Wake Wood (2011) opens somewhere in urban Ireland where Patrick Daly (good Irish name (played by Aidan Gillen)), is a veterinarian with a happy home life with wife Louise (Eva Birthistle) and daughter Alice (some kid). On Alice’s birthday, the day the film starts, life is great for all three of them. Sadly that is ruined when, as she leaves the house for school, Alice stops to say hello to one of the dogs her father is looking after which then attacks and severely mauls her. Alice sadly dies from her wounds despite the best efforts of her parents.

Nearly a year later Pat and Louise have moved to a small town called Wake Wood somewhere in rural Ireland (that looks a lot like Donegal). Louise has a small pharmacy and Paddy is working with a local vet Arthur (Timothy Spall) who is stepping back from the practice and letting Patsy get on with things. Life is far from good as Louise is openly mourning Alice’s death, a process made all the worse by Louise not being able to have any more children due to complications with Alice’s birth. Pádraig is also not in a happy place, but he seems to be working through them, focusing on the new type of veterinary medicine he’s practicing with larger farm animals as well as trying to keep his marriage together as Louise just wants to run off and be alone with her grief.

Louise manages to talk Patrick into taking her to the train station so she can just go away but en route their car breaks down. Luckily they’re near Paddy’s bosses place so they cut across the fields to get there to look for help. At Arthur’s house, Louise witnesses a group of people, with Arthur at their head, performing a strange ritual at the end of which a person emerges from a cocoon in something that looks like a birth. Shocked by all this Louise and Podge run home, where they find Arthur, who’d let himself in, asking if everything is alright.

Shortly after this and after an accident on a local farm kills a man while Patrick was looking after a bull and Louise was assisting, they tell Arthur that they’re leaving Wake Wood as it’s not working out for them. Arthur seems to understand their underlying pain relating to Alice’s death and he explains to them why they should stay. He tells them how the Wake Wood community maintain a strange set of pagan beliefs around the dead and the ritual Louise saw is one to bring a dead person back to life for three days in order for the family to have a little more time with them and to say their goodbyes properly.

This is of great interest to the distraught Louise and Patsy spots his chance at a little happiness and maybe some closure. They readily agree to have the ritual performed but Arthur warns that there are some very strict rules that, if not obeyed completely, can have some dire consequences; the dead person can’t be in the ground for more than one year and one risen they can’t go outside the town boundaries. Paddy and Louise proceed with the ritual even though they’re lying to Arthur about something to do with Alice...

As the contestants on The X Factor get younger, the sob stories get more extreme

Wake Wood is a proper Irish horror film and one that’s long overdue. Irish actors make up the bulk of the cast (with the exception of Timothy Spall), the locations are in Ireland and the details are largely correct, like the registration plates on the cars and such. The only detail missing is that the town signs are all only in English but I guess this was done so that the film could travel outside Ireland without too much effort.

The movie is one of those Irish Film Board/RTE/Other EU country film board collaborations that seem to be the only way to get a non-Hollywood film made in Ireland these days and it was distributed by the newly re-activated Hammer Films (the original company being bahind the Hammer Horror films) which gives this little indy movie from Ireland an unexpected pedigree without much effort. As it's a low budget film the use of cheaper, modern film making techniques permiates the production giving Wake Wood a made for TV feel, though some of the cinematography is also to blame for this.

Aiden Gillen (you may know him as little finger from Game of Thrones) as Patrick is excellent, nicely understated as a man who's suffered a loss and really doesn't want to suffer much more. Eva Birthistle was good as Louise too but hers was perhaps an easier character to play. Timpthy Spall as the older vet Arthur was flat out brilliatn as he did his Englishman in Ireland/Seigfried Farnam style older vet performance. (For those among you who don't know who Seigfried Farnam is might I recommend a read of the early James Herriott novels about his time as a vet, or a viewing of the TV series All Creatures Great and Small)

The script left a little to be desired as, like the road signs, I suspect it was cleaned up in order for the film to travel. There aren't as many slang terms or colloquialisms as you'd expect to hear in the Irish countryside and the accents have been toned down as well. Unfortunately this lets a certain amount of blandness and stuffiness to creep in, particularly in scenes featuring the Daly’s at home or work. This has the effect of dragging out parts of the film and the transitions between parts that move the story along feel longer then they should. You’re also left guessing about the secret Patrick and Louise are keeping, perhaps for a little too long as you’re left to wonder why the resurrected Alice is behaving the way she is and where the story is going, though in fact it actually goes to a decent horror ending.

The story is where the real strength lies in Wake Wood as the primary subject matter is so horrific that it features in the genre quite a lot, but is rarely handled so well. The loss of a child is enough of a horror, but only for those directly involved, namely the parents and other close relatives. The things Patrick and Louise go through show how much they’ve lost but it seems beyond imagining that they’d actually go through the steps required of the resurrection ritual as on a human level you expect something in the backs of their minds to have stopped them. Perhaps trying to understand this allows the audience to glimpse the horror and the motivations driving the main characters in the film.

There are some very strong parallels between Wake Wood and The Wicker Man; the isolated community, the pagan beliefs, the strong community leader with all the knowledge, the distrust of outsiders, and the issues around the death of a child all mirror the events in The Wicker Man. Wake Wood manages to stand on its own however as the rituals and other aspects of the towns beliefs are toned down and instead of playing on the fears of the outsiders the film works on their deepest desires instead, however human they may be.

Regardless of the problems in the film, the cast and crew of Wake Wood deserve credit for taking the risks they did with the story, and for making an enjoyable Irish horror film to be proud of.

Two Thumbs Up for Wake Wood

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