One has to admire a horror movie that eschews the grisly gore so common in the genre nowadays in favor of more traditional devices like musty atmosphere and strange noises, but this one is so turgid and enervated that it’s more likely to generate snores than shudders. “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death” is simply too old-fashioned and genteel to make much of an impression at all; it’s as ephemeral as the ghost in its title.
The first picture in the series from the rejuvenated Hammer studio was notable mostly for providing one of the first post-“Harry Potter” roles for Daniel Radcliffe. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and directed by James Watkins, the 2012 release was an Edwardian-era period piece about a young lawyer who went to a remote Yorkshire manor, Eels Marsh, to survey the papers of a recently-deceased client, only to find that the place was haunted by the malevolent spirit of a woman who’d lost her young son to drowning and has ever since been luring local children to their deaths. This follow-up, also based on a story by Hill, is set in 1941, when the German bombardment of London led many families to send their sons and daughters to the countryside for safety’s sake.
As part of the exodus, a group of eight youngsters are assigned to Eels Marsh under the care of pretty young Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and the far more rigid Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory). Unwittingly, the good women are in effect laying out a buffet of tasty morsels for the spirit that still inhabits the long-deserted, decrepit place, which is almost constantly shrouded in fog and also happens to be situated on a hill that’s cut off from the mainland at times of high tide. No wonder some of the little ones become targets, with somber little Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), whose parents have just been killed in the Blitz, the most obvious of them. Eve takes a special interest in protecting him, even as she becomes aware—from creaking doors, strange sounds and a rocking chair that moves even when no one is in it—of a strange presence in the house.
But Eve has her own demons. She has recurring nightmares about a child she bore but abandoned—a fact of which the ghost seems aware. And though Harry (Jeremy Irvine), a handsome RAF pilot she encountered on the train trip north, appoints himself her protector, he’s also tormented by the past, specifically a crash that took the lives of all his crew. Can two such damaged souls save Edward and the other children from the titular menace?
The best things about “Angel of Death” are visual. Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design is impressive, and George Steel’s lustrous widescreen cinematography drains much of the color from the images, leaving a painterly blue-and-gray palette. In its earlier incarnation Hammer made pictures that looked remarkably classy on low budgets, and on the evidence here, the studio hasn’t lost its touch in that respect.
But on the dramatic side the news is much less good. Tom Harper’s direction emphasizes mood to the near-exclusion of energy and tension, and even when he tries to add some shock moments—especially in the last third of the running-time—the effect is feeble. Things aren’t helped by Mark Eckersley’s humdrum editing, or by the drab performances of Fox, Irvine and Pendergast. McCrory is no better than they are, but at least her portrayal of stiff-upper-lipism is so over the top that it might provoke a few smiles. Ned Dennehy shows up briefly as a mentally unstable blind man who appears to be the only inhabitant of the derelict village near the manor (apparently depopulated since the time of the first film, where it was a thriving little place); he has no purpose except to provide a few cheap “gotcha” moments. Unfortunately, “Angel of Death” misses out on one of the nicest ironies of “The Woman in Black,” where the title character was played by an actress named Liz White. This time around, she’s been replaced by Leanne Best, and the witty juxtaposition is lost.
For a film about the supernatural, “The Woman in Black 2” is unremittingly mundane, and in that respect it’s no better than its tepid predecessor. Any hope that Hammer might have of continuing this series is probably just wishful thinking.