Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Wake Wood - review

2011 (Ireland / UK)

Contains spoilers.

I'm starting to think the odd month or two break is probably for the best. I mean, I do enjoy a good bit of post apocalyptic bloodshed and eye gouging but I'm starting to think the relentless tide of misery, despair, death and hopelessness does get a bit too much after a while. Still we're back and refreshed after a lot of turkey, mince pies, oodles of booze, a lot of Zombicide, and finally, as if you'd missed it, the release of my post apocalyptic father / daughter love short story.

I picked up Wake Wood after reading Kev's commentary at Zombie Hall thinking as a low budget British horror with zombie elements in it would be right up my proverbial alley and I'm pleased to say it was. The only question mark is whether those returning from the dead in the quaint secluded hamlet of Wake Wood could actually be called zombies; and whether in any sense this could really be thought of as a zombie film.

Wake Wood, the brain child of writer Brendan McCarthy and co writer / director David Keating is a character drama gently addressing the inconsolable process of healing after the most painful of bereavements, it's also a fantastical fantasy / medieval folk story about a village with an incredulous secret and it's also quite the scary horror with some almost full on exploitative Fulci style deaths. That it attempts and achieves all of the above without ever feeling disjointed or segmented is in itself  surprising, that it does so retaining its poignancy, mood and message is commendable. Wake Wood is a beautifully crafted intelligently told narrative with a strong cohesive identity and despite the pure fantasy of the central device the core message is never devalued and the film retains its identity through to the satisfactory ending.

Patrick and Louise Daley (Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle) are struggling with the unfortunate death of their only daughter Alice (Ella Connolly). It's a year later, they've moved out the city to the small rural village of Wake Wood and with their relationship on the precipice they're given the glimmer of hope as they slowly uncover Wake Wood's secret. For one reason or another this small parish and it's citizens are able through folk magic and ritual to resurrect the recently deceased for three days where they can say their final farewells and find peace. Lead by Arthur, the retired village veterinarian (Timothy Spall) the villagers accept Patrick and Louise as one of their own and agree to help them see their daughter again.

Here's the deal. Using the life-force of the recently deceased, in this case the local farmer Mick O'Shea (Dan Gordon) who got slightly too intimate with a large moody heifer, Arthur is able to incant the old gods and forces and return the body and soul of someone else who has been dead less than a year. The old body has it's spinal cord cut and a charm from the one who is to come back placed in the mouth before being encased in some kind of muddy/clay cast and set alight. David Keating has captured the pagan ritual splendidly both extolling the sense of wonder and magic while firmly entrenching idea that this is both something old, familiar and pragmatic to those that have grown up with it as the norm.

Patrick and Louise are informed they have three days before Alice will have to return, that for all intents and purposes she will be as before with memories of both her time on earth and her time 'over there' and when the time comes she will leave of her own accord. The caveats are, she will be unable to leave the village and its lands and Patrick and Louise must commit themselves to the village accepting their bodies will be used in a similar fashion when the time comes.

In many ways I saw Alice and the others who returned as form of revenant, a departed soul brought back to conclude any unfinished business and make peace with those who were most affected. Alice has a heartbeat, she breathes, she is who she was and in that position she isn't a zombie as I now come to define them. There's no loss, no deadness to her return, she is alive, vibrant and in control. She's alice and Alice, just making a short trip back to the land of the living, well kind of...

This is a horror, or more precisely, a film with horror elements and while I'd probably agree it would still have worked as a tender and respectful character drama the direction McCarthy and Keating decided to take it is also compelling. Patrick and Louise kept a secret too and it's one that ultimately changes the tone of the film and how one thinks of Alice. Alice had been dead more than a year and while the small girl who returned is the same daughter they lost, something else, something more sinister and malevolent has fused and accompanied her.

It's subtle, it's never really explained and it could be argued all a bit narratively convenient, but the ambiguity as to why a year is the cut off is important, what the possessive demon-esque force that co-inhabits Alice's shell is or why it would want to sadistically rampage through the village all add to the atmosphere and mystique. Alice is now a revenant in the more traditional sense, a medieval corpse returned to terrorise the living and as such and seen perhaps as the resurrected body of Alice but not THE Alice, then the term zombie is befitting. I would probably argue the transformation of the film from loving soul search and pagan earth magic healing to one of bloodshed and carnage, is perhaps a little too full on and sudden, but I get where McCarthy and Keating were coming from, and they just about get away with it. Also the ritualised murder and mayhem Alice brings to the party at this point is also well constructed and filmed, and definitely entertaining to watch.

Wake Wood is an extremely accomplished film. Stylish and atmospheric with an ambient appropriate background score it establishes a clear identity early on and despite two distinct narrative transformations never loses it. All the main actors do an exemplary job portraying very believable characters dealing with extremely harrowing and difficult emotions and at no point are you ever pulled out the world McCarthy and Keating have created. Yes one does have to let oneself flow with it and not ask too many questions but the film makes this remarkably easy to do. The story flows gently but without strain and the underlying tension is allowed to build at its own pace. A unique film; perhaps not strictly zombie, but of genre interest, memorable and thought provoking, 7/10.



  1. Yeah, I mean, it's a Zombie Film the way that Pet Sematary is a Zombie Film... definitely was memorable, had some good acting, decent scares, and some genuinely interesting ideas. I had taken something of a break for a little while there, and am getting back to it now...

    Much like the zombies themselves, zombie films are an endless onslaught!

    1. Absolutely. Cheers. Also they are, I also think our situation isn't helped with the overall quality either!