Released in 2009, Wake Wood was one of the first films produced by Hammer Films after it was relaunched following a decades long hiatus in 2007. Like the other recent Hammer projects, such as The Resident and The Lodge (which I reviewed last year), it varies considerably in style and subject from the early Hammer films which were often based on classic horror characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy.
Set in Ireland, Wake Wood tells the story of a grieving couple who lost their daughter Alice in a horrific animal attack. Looking to start over, they relocate to a seemingly idyllic small town in the countryside where the husband, Patrick (played by Aidan Gillen) continues his work as a veterinarian while his wife Louise (Eva Birthistle) works as a pharmacist. At first, all seems well as the couple integrates into their new surroundings until Louise witnesses a bizarre ritual being enacted by her new neighbours that changes everything.
After their car breaks down, Louise ends up at the farm of Arthur (Timothy Spall), a colleague of her husband, and watches as they bring someone back to life in a grotesque Pagan ceremony that resembles a birthing. Horrified, Louise escapes without informing her husband what she witnessed but Arthur spies her and later visits the couple to explain what she saw. In order to convince them not to leave the village, Arthur offers to perform a ritual that can bring their daughter back to life for three days before she must be “returned to the woods”.
At first the couple are shocked but begin to warm up to the idea. We learn they are not able to have any more children after Alice’s difficult birth and bringing back Alice (Ella Connolly) for even a few days may be the only thing that could fill a void in their empty lives. Arthur explains the bizarre and very complex process of performing the ritual which requires the use of a cadaver of a recently deceased person and some very personal belongings of their daughter to make it happen. After convincing a reluctant local widow to loan them her husband’s corpse, the ceremony takes place. Unfortunately, due to a lie the couple told Arthur during the rigorous screening process, the result is not what they hoped.
After Alice’s resurrection, the couple is initially thrilled to have her back but the couple slowly begin to realize that this is not the happy little girl they once knew. Over the first couple of days the family try try to recreate their once perfect family but as the third and final day approaches where then the girl would have to be returned to the woods, it becomes clear that resurected Alice is not down for that. The vengeful child embarks on a bloody rampage of the townsfolk who are trying to ensure the ritual ends in the traditional way.
While Wake Wood has some similarities to other films based on Pagan rituals and superstition such as The Wicker Man, it does incorporate some unique components to its storyline. The ritual process itself is very cruel and crude, requiring the desecration of another villager’s corpse to facilitate the rebirth. It’s both shocking and oddly compelling at the same time. Also, the careful consideration and criteria for determining if someone is eligible to be reborn is quite interesting as well. An odd device resembling an abacus is used to determine eligibility and even one false answer can lead to tragic consequences as the grieving parents soon find out.
Gillen and Birthistle’s portrayals of emotionally damaged parents desperate to see their daughter one last time were convincing. Timothy Spall’s compelling portrayal of a mild mannered veterinarian by day and Pagan master of ceremonies by night made the bizarre rituals seem believable when they could have easily come off as ridiculous. The undead daughter’s role could could have used a little more emotion and development as she goes from innocent child to ruthless killer with barely a shift in demeanour, leaving the climatic ending of the film a bit flat.
I did find the ending quite intriguing as it alludes to another rebirthing ritual taking place with a very interesting twist…do these townsfolk never learn? While Wake Wood never generated much suspense or scares, its unique take on Pagan folklore and the undead still make it a worthwhile watch. If you are expecting the classic, gothic horror of Hammer films of old, you might be better off checking out one of the other films reviewed in the latest Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis & RealweegieMidget Reviews.
Also, be sure to check out another contribution to the blogathon by the other maniacal monster here.
Wake Wood is available to stream for free on Tubi (US).