The British production company Hammer Studios, once the gothic horror home of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, and seemingly hectares of red velvet, has had a spotty track record since its revivification in 2007. Its one grand triumph in the past eight years was 2010’s Let Me In (the English-language adaptation of the Swedish kid-thing creep-out Let the Right One In). Somewhat less of a watershed moment was 2012’s The Woman in Black, which featured Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Harry Potter role. As a return to Hammer’s rightfully celebrated Victorian/Edwardian atmospherics and decedent doings, it wasn’t half bad. This sequel, sadly, is more than half bad, although to be fair, it tries. Oh, how it tries.
More than 40 years since the events of the first film, the German Blitz engulfs London in nightly firestorms. Among the evacuees to the relative safety of the countryside are schoolteacher Eve (Fox), sturdy headmistress Jean (McCrory), and their small flock of grade-school pupils, chief among them the wide-eyed and mute Edward (Pendergast). Their destination turns out to be Eel Marsh House, in the vaguely Lovecraftian township of Crythin Gifford, the site of the original film’s hauntings. The manse is a suitably dilapidated mess and it’s cut off from the village every time the tide comes in, but it’s home for now, and at least Eve has managed to meet flirty RAF pilot Harry (Irvine) on the trip there. But then there’s the issue of that malevolent spirit roaming around and scaring the children, literally, to death, as well as Eve’s own, buried, postpartum issues. Things do not end well, despite the third-act entrance of the RAF’s best in the battle against both spooks and Nazis.
What director Harper and cinematographer George Steel do best, they do exceedingly well: generating a palpable sense of eeriness via top-notch production design and camerawork. The titular woman in black isn’t nearly as unnerving as some of Steel’s pale, moonlit compositions, and the Eel Marsh House and grounds themselves should get character credit of some sort, given how much they add to the overall sense of dread. What’s missing from The Woman in Black 2, and what it needs most and has least of all, is suspense. There’s a crippling over-reliance on easy shock scares that cheapen the moribund proceedings, and, honestly, you already know all about the ghost if you’ve seen the first film. Slamming doors and rocking chairs in the night can only do so much when set against the backdrop of England’s finest hour, after all.
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