Even by the standard of recent obligatory horror sequels, The Woman In Black: Angel of Death feels like an exercise in futility. Scares are few and far between — and even the Woman in Black herself has the good sense to give this one a miss. Spoilers ahead...
Most would agree that the absolutely worst possible place to bring children in need of a safe haven is … a creepy old mansion haunted by a ghost that preys on children. Angel of Death builds an entire film around this wee error in judgment.
In her defense, schoolteacher Eve Parkins (textbook English rose Phoebe Fox) has no idea that remote Eel Marsh House contains a malevolent spirit when she, along with stern Headmistress Hogg (Helen McCrory), shepherds a class of wide-eyed youths into its clutches. The year is 1941, and it's not safe for kids anywhere in bombed-out London. The only available alternative (we're told this repeatedly) is the crumbling manse that so spooked Daniel Radcliffe in 2012's The Woman in Black, a more or less faithful adaptation of the 1983 Susan Hill novella.
The mystery that Radcliffe's hapless lawyer had to unravel in that film — recap: it involved a mournful mother, a dead child, and a sinister familial cover-up — figures heavily here, as the shrieking Woman in Black stirs from her Edwardian-era reign of terror to inflict misery on children and adults already scarred by the devastation of World War II. Chubby-cheeked cherub Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) loses his parents in the film's opening blitz, rendering him exactly the kind of vulnerable creature the Woman in Black is longing to meet.
Since the traumatized Edward has also lost his ability to speak, he communicates via ominous drawings and carefully penciled zingers. To wit: "That's rubbish," he informs the well-meaning Miss Parkins when she tries to tell him that nightmares, once experienced, make one's fears disappear. And Eve knows he's right; her backstory, as heavy-handed as it is immediately obvious, means she has more in common with the Woman in Black than most.
But really, everyone in this movie is in deep pain. It's a battle for emo supremacy between Eve, Edward, the Woman in Black, Headmistress Hogg (whose role is mostly to be stern and bitchy, but does let slip that her husband and sons are both fighting in the war), and flirty RAF pilot Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), whose suspiciously perfect facade hides a deeply troubled heart.
Of course it does. The Woman in Black 2 is very, very interested in tortured souls, though most of them (except for the supernatural one) keep a terribly stiff upper lip throughout the grieving process. The film is also heavily invested in its grimy-goth mise-en-scène; let's just say if you liked those terrifying Island of Misfit Toys types that populated the abandoned nursery in the first film, you're in luck. Most everything in this film goes way over the top. For instance, the house is not just out in the middle of nowhere, it's located on an island accessible only by an oft-flooded, winding road; the only neighbor, whose Renfield-like ravings make more sense as the film progresses, is the single occupant of the otherwise abandoned nearby town.
The film, directed by British TV vet Tom Harper, also deals heavily in cliches: a main character whose right-on instinct that Shit Is Not On the Level, Paranormally Speaking, is laughed off; the discovery of a key that leads to important clues; the discovery of a recording that yields even more important clues (such a lazy device, unless it involves Bruce Campbell and the Necronomicon); somebody's-watching-you! lurking POV shots, etc. It also recycles the first film's gothic/black metal corpse paint/J-horror monster design.
What this overstuffed cocktail of gloom lacks: any decent scares. There's one particularly icky death of a small child (not a spoiler; when the Woman in Black's around, some moppets are gonna get it), but there's no genuine terror afoot. Though newcomer Fox is reasonably sympathetic, and veteran McCrory gives good eyebrow raise, the cast can't touch the first film's, which besides Radcliffe included Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer. The Woman in Black is played by Leanne Best, but she barely registers — most of the "frights" come courtesy of creaking doors, mood lighting, and the occasional moldy-looking hand sneaking into the frame.
It's worth noting that both The Woman in Black and this sequel were produced by legendary British outfit Hammer Film Productions, which rose from the dead in 2007 like the star of its many Dracula films of the 1960s and 70s. And sure, kudos are in order for Hammer keeping to the old-dark-house brand of horror that made it so iconic back in the day. But it's disappointing to see that grand name attached to a film like The Woman in Black 2: competently executed but ultimately forgettable.