Thursday, October 25, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #29: WAKE WOOD (2011)

The Story: After the violent death of their young daughter, a married couple invokes a pagan ritual to bring her back to life for three days.

Expectations: For many viewers, nothing is more frightening than the thought of losing a child.  That's why films like PUMPKINHEAD (1988) and PET SEMATARY (1989) carry so much weight.  In PET SEMATARY, a father is so distraught that he brings his son back from the dead -- even though he knows that what he brings back will not really be his son, but rather a monster that looks like his son.  I was intrigued by the premise of WAKE WOOD because it seems to set up an even more troubling scenario.  What if you really could bring back your child... but you knew that you had only a short time with them?  Would that be better, because you would get to say goodbye?  Or would it be worse, because you'd be forcing your child to die for a second time?

I was also excited about this film because it represents the revival of Hammer Horror, the British studio that produced some of the best horror films ever.  To name just a few: THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT / THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1955), QUATERMASS 2 / ENEMY FROM SPACE (1957), THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1959), CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961), DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), QUATERMASS AND THE PIT / FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967), THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)... I could go on and on.  In fact, next year, I think I'm going to celebrate Halloween with "30 Days of Hammer."  Anyway, the studio is back in action, and so far they have a pretty decent track record, which includes the remakes LET ME IN (2010) and THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012), as well as WAKE WOOD.

Reaction: First off, I have to say that I couldn't get as invested in these characters as I did in the characters from PUMPKINHEAD or PET SEMATARY.  In PUMPKINHEAD, the bond between father and son is conveyed by the amazingly vulnerable performance of Lance Henriksen.  In PET SEMATARY, we spend nearly half of the movie with the Creed family, allowing time for each of the characters to grow on us.  WAKE WOOD cuts right to the chase.  Dead child.  Mourning parents.  And a quiet little English village where the citizens casually and routinely bring their loved ones back from the dead.

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing casual about the way these people bring someone back from the dead... it's a horrendously gruesome process.  But the citizens of Wakewood, led by the loveable Timothy Spall, seem like they could have been pulled from the supporting cast of THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) or THE WICKER MAN (1973).... which is to say, they don't seem like monsters.  They're just everyday folk, for whom the resurrection of the dead has become a way of life.

Oddly enough, the grieving parents (the British Patrick Dempsey and Naomi Watts) simply accept this alternate reality, even though they're recently transplants to the village.  There's no significant moral debate about whether or not they should bring their child back from the dead.  They just do it.  For that reason, I had trouble empathizing with them as characters.  That changed, however,  as soon as they had their little girl again.  Seeing them reunited with their daughter was genuinely heartbreaking.  For one thing, it was immediately clear that the child had some slight awareness of what had happened to her and I figured the parents would eventually have to tell her that she was going to die again soon.  (I could already hear echoes of Henriksen's son in PUMPKINHEAD, asking, "What did you do, daddy?").   Suddenly, the moral dilemma changed from "What would you be willing to do to get your child back" to "What would you do to keep her?"

As it turns out, that's not what's at issue in the third act of this film.  Instead WAKE WOOD returns to familiar territory.  Through some kind of loophole in the magic, the un-dead girl isn't quite what she seems.  She's Gage in PET SEMATARY... a tainted soul.  To me, this revelation was a disappointment.  Wouldn't it be more horrific to have to watch your child die a second time, than to watch a lookalike monster die?  For better or worse, WAKE WOOD dispenses with the more horrifying scenario in favor of becoming a straightforward monster movie.  The monster, sympathetic as it is, must be destroyed so that order can be restored. That's much more palatable than a story in which the only monsters are parents who would force their child to die twice... but I was hoping for a bit more daring.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The sight of these parents desecrating their child's corpse certainly makes an impression...

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