I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
There is a difference between a film being economical in its storytelling and one that rushes through its story and character beats to jam as many plot points as possible into a ninety-minute running time. The filmmakers behind Wake Wood do not understand that difference. Or maybe they just don’t care that their film feels like it’s on fast-forward.
Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle) wake up on the morning of their daughter Alice’s (Ella Connolly) ninth birthday with their entire lives ahead of them. The give her presents, shower her with affection and send her on her way to school. But Alice takes a detour on her way to school to feed a dog. The dog attacks and kills Alice in a surprisingly graphic sequence.
The story flashes forward several months. Patrick and Louise have moved to the small Irish village of Wakewood. Patrick works as the town veterinarian, running the local practice for semi-retired Arthur (Timothy Spall), and Louise opens a pharmacy. When Louise accidentally witnesses a strange ceremony involving Arthur and other residents of the town that results in what looks like the birth of a full grown man, an unexpected offer lands in the lap of the couple. Arthur explains that he has the ability to return Alice to them for three days to have a proper farewell. Patrick is hesitant because his form of mourning has him trying to move on with his life, but Louise is eager to take the offer. Trying to give his wife closure, Patrick agrees and the ceremony is successfully performed with Alice returned to them in seemingly perfect condition. But the more time they spend with her, Patrick and Louise notice something is off about their daughter. When they start finding animals killed around their home and the homes of their neighbors, the couple wonders if Alice may have come back from the dead as something other than their sweet little girl.
The screenplay for Wake Wood is credited to Brendan McCarthy and director David Keating, with McCarthy receiving story credit. Stephen King may take exception to that claim. For much of the film, I felt like I was watching a new adaptation of Pet Sematary with an Irish twist. I’m not saying that the filmmakers consciously ripped off King’s novel, but many of the second and third act twists are going to feel very familiar to anyone who has read the book or seen the 1989 film adaptation.
But I’m not sure that King would even want to claim credit for Wake Wood. It’s a film of zero surprises that tramples over any moment of dramatic resonance on its way to the next uninspired plot twist. This is a problem when much of the film’s drama in the first act is supposed to spring from the strain Alice’s death has put on Patrick and Louise’s marriage. Patrick’s ultimate decision to move forward with bringing Alice back is spurred by Louise’s decision to leave him. But the grief, resentment, desperation, and anger Louise feels is never given time to develop. Birthistle tries to give Louise a shell-shocked personality, but she doesn’t stand a chance against some stone-eared dialogue and the choppy editing employed to get Alice out of the grave and possibly slaughtering animals as soon as possible.
This movie frustrated the hell out of me. Looking past the lack of originality at its premise, it had potential. But aside from a superior scene highlighting the grisly nature of the ceremony used to return loved ones from the dead, Keating refuses to get out of the way and let any of the scenes breathe. Despite the quite lengthy journey Patrick and Louise take from the film’s beginning to end, I felt that I didn’t know them at all. The second any scene seems to be giving the characters a moment to breathe and reveal something about their personalities, Keating abruptly cuts away to a cheap shock or a different character explaining away their motivation with a quick, stilted line. This is a movie made for people with short attention spans by people with short attention spans. And it’s as bad as that description makes it sound.
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