While being treated at an asylum, Jennet Humfrye (Leanne Best) learned that her sontaken away from her at birth and raised by her sistertragically drowned in the British marshlands. His body was not recovered until nearly four decades later, in the 1920s, but by then the damage had been done. Vowing to never forgive for the loss of her child, the devastated Jennet hung herself inside the remote Eel Marsh House estate. Although her body died, her spirit has refused to rest, taking the lives of any children she can latch onto in the nearby town of Crythin Gifford. "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death" does little to further the vengeful Jennet's backstory or mythos, thus becoming a been-there-done-that-better shadow of 2012's spookier, tenser "The Woman in Black
." Directed by Tom Harper and written by Jon Croker (based on a story by Susan Hill) with an over-reliance on cheap jolts, this distaff sequel excels in fog-soaked atmosphere, but stumbles with its repetitive storytelling and stilted pacing.
The year is 1941. During the height of World War II, sympathetic schoolteacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and rigid headmistress Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) escape the London Blitz with a group of children they hope to keep safe from the bombing attacks on their homeland. Seeking shelter at the desolate, long-abandoned Eel Marsh House, Eve and Jean quickly go about attempting to restore as much normalcy as they can to their charges' uprooted lives. The mansion is dank and musty, but appears to be harmless until Eve happens upon a mysterious woman roaming the property. When one of the children dies in what appears to be a freak accident, she becomes all the more convinced that there is an evil lurking about them, one that preys on their fears and will not rest until they are all dead.
Instead of consistently moving its story and characters forward as the superior original starring Daniel Radcliffe did, "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death" too often goes slack and rambles, hitting many similar beats as its predecessor without achieving the same aura of chilly portent. "The Woman in Black
" had its fair share of jump scares, but they were fully earned, served a purpose, and more often than not worked. The ones here are not nearly as effectively realized, falling into overindulgence and leading much of the time to lame false alarms. The timing of these scares, heavily dependent on a sure-footed editorial touch, frequently seem to be a quarter-second off from achieving lift-off. And, if the ghostly title villainess in question can materialize at a moment's notice, why bother having her in the background of one shot crawling out of a hole in the ceiling? Far better are the instances when director Tom Harper puts away these plodding clichés and goes for solid, old-fashioned suspense. The suggestion of wicked things coming is often more unsettling than big payoffs, and such is the case with clever bits involving shoes sticking out from a curtain and the shape of a body (but whose?) lying under a white bedsheet.
Phoebe Fox (2011's "One Day
") plays Eve Parkins as amiable, resolute and down-to-earth, a young woman who cares about the welfare of her pupils and will do whatever she must to protect them. The reveal of a dark secret from her past gives her an intriguing shared commonality with the spectral woman in black, but not much is done with it. Ditto the personal demons of Army pilot and Eve's would-be love interest Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), who is haunted by a war-time tragedy that took the lives of his crew. This character detail brings texture to the historical WWII setting, but Jeremy Irvine's (2011's "War Horse
") Harry is otherwise poorly woven into the narrative, popping up at random times without much reason for him to be there. In supporting turns, Helen McCrory (2012's "Skyfall
") brings a few unexpected shades to the stern-faced Jean, while Oaklee Pendergast (2012's "The Impossible
") does a nice job as Edward, an orphaned boy whom Eve believes has started to communicate with the dangerous entity.
"The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death" is handsomely produced, its sumptuous, purposefully downcast cinematography by George Steel especially impressive. The production design by Jacqueline Abrahams is noteworthy as well, from the detailed antiques within the Eel Marsh Housea line of monkey figures symbolizing "see no evil," "hear no evil" and "speak no evil" are neat touchesto the woodsy graveyard on the grounds of the property. Beyond these technical achievements and a few scattered moments of inspiration, the film gets weighed down by its sluggish, predictable familiarity. With nowhere to go with an antagonist who doesn't change and cannot be stopped, the third act settles on a half-hearted, wishy-washy denouement that tries to give a few of its characters happy endings even as nothing at all is actually solved or settled. It is a fun moviegoing experience to be rattled with a veritable funhouse of frights, just as it is a bummer to watch something clearly aiming for this audience reaction and generally failing. At its core, this is the key difference between "The Woman in Black
" and "The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death."