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The mysterious, vengeful spirit known as the Woman in Black is back, and her violent prejudice against little children remains unabated. Buoyed by a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role as ill-fated attorney Arthur Kipps, the 2012 original took in more than $130 million in global the box office, but lacking comparable stars, Relativity Media’s weak sequel will struggle to approximate that figure, particularly with a half-dozen holdovers still dominating theaters.
Whereas the original release from venerable British horror label Hammer Films benefited an aura of supernatural suspense associated with Radcliffe’s long-running Warner Bros. franchise, the follow-up jumps ahead in time too far to capitalize on the events of its predecessor. Several decades after the house-haunting events that transpired in The Woman in Black, when Kipps (Radcliffe) attempted to settle the estate of a recently deceased old widow and encountered a violent spirit possessing the property, the eerie, isolated Eel Marsh House has reawakened.
The occasion is the 1941 arrival of a group of school children fleeing the London Blitz, as parents send their kids away to the British countryside for their own safety. Thirty-ish schoolteacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and middle-aged headmistress Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) chaperone their students on the train journey from London, arriving at the abandoned mansion in the care of Dr. Rhodes (Adrian Rawlins), an irascible local physician who has no patience with their initial hesitation to move into the decrepit building.
From her first night in Eel Marsh House, Eve feels uneasy, sensing an unseen presence hovering around the property. She’s particularly concerned for the welfare of young Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), who’s been orphaned by the London bombings and withdrawn into a speechless state. After tragedy befalls one of the children in her care, Eve begins to suspect that the malevolent spirit connected with the mansion may be targeting Edward next.
Jean refuses to believe anything is amiss in the house and Dr. Rhodes considers Eve’s fears entirely unfounded. Her only defender is Harry (Jeremy Irvine), a handsome young pilot stationed at a nearby air force base who avidly listens to Eve’s account of spotting a mysterious woman clad in a dark, old-fashioned dress, her face hidden behind a black veil, flitting about the grounds. After a series of further ominous incidents, it becomes clear that escaping the dire influence of the Woman in Black may rest with the fate of young Edward, who remains barely communicative.
With minimal overlap in personnel or characters between the two films, the sequel essentially represents a fresh start, but the material feels stale from nearly the first scene featuring the threatening old manse. A vaguely articulated backstory justifying the Woman in Black’s ghostly origins and murderous motivation falls well short of establishing a solid foundation for her vengeful retaliations, even if she remains lethally effective at leading children astray. Reliant on suspense rather than gore, this is functional middle-brow psychological horror, and screenwriter Joe Croker finds plenty of tired haunted house tropes he’s happy to recycle in adapting material from Susan Hill’s original novel.
Tom Harper, despite limited feature directing experience, demonstrates distinct visual flair, favoring a disconcertingly dynamic camera that floats and glides through the rooms and hallways of the decaying home with almost self-aware stealth, deliberately stalking characters as they venture into peril.
Production companies: Hammer Films, Talisman Productions, Exclusive Media Group, eOne Films
Cast: Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy, Oaklee Pendergast
Director: Tom Harper
Screenwriter: Jon Croker
Producers: Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes, Ben Holden, Tobin Armbrust
Executive producers: Neil Dunn, Guy East, Roy Lee, Marc Schipper, Nigel Sinclair, Richard Toussaint
Director of photography: George Steel
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Costume designer: Annie Symons
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Music: Marco Beltrami
Casting director: Julie Harkin
Rated PG-13, 98 minutes
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