Blackwood: London Review

Handsome homage to old-school gothic thrills.

This supernatural murder mystery from debut director Adam Wimpenny scores on atmosphere but fails to reinvent creaky genre cliches.

If Richard Curtis ever gets around to making a haunted-house horror movie, it will probably look something like Blackwood. Set in a picture-book fantasy England of quaint country villages and well-heeled professionals, this modestly budgeted but elegantly appointed thriller is full of literary and cinematic echoes, from Rebecca to The Woman in Black, Don’t Look Now to The Others.

The feature debut of Adam Wimpenny, whose background is in British TV drama and entertainment shows, Blackwood premiered last week at the London Film festival. It should find a berth at future festivals, particularly those dedicated to horror and supernatural themes. But the lack of star names, low body count and stagey plot point to a limited commercial afterlife.

Ed Stoppard plays Ben Marshall, a college professor who has recently downsized to a new job at a provincial university following a high-pressure post at Oxford that ended in nervous breakdown, almost destroying his family. Ben, his wife Rachel (Sophia Myles) and their young son Harry (Isaac Andrews) move into Blackwood, a remote manor house deep in the woods. Before long, inevitably, the corridors begin to rattle with creepy visions and uninvited guests.

A series of tense encounters with the eccentric local priest Father Patrick (Game of Thrones co-star Paul Kaye) and his troubled friend Jack (Russell Tovey), a traumatized military vet with a shady family secret, convince Ben that he is witnessing ghostly echoes of an unsolved murder. He soon becomes obsessive, playing amateur detective as the clues mount up. Then again, he could be suffering another mental crack-up. Or his devilish drinking buddy Dominic (Greg Wise) may even be playing sadistic mind games in a bid to steal Rachel away from him.

Beautifully shot on digital 35mm in golden-bronze hues, Blackwood has the high-spec visual polish of a much bigger production. Cinematographer Dale McReady, a Doctor Who veteran, frames the autumnal English countryside like a series of exquisite paintings. The handsome production design of Michael Howells merits a mention here, as does Lorne Balfe’s classy orchestral score, which hovers in spine-tingling Thomas Newman territory without taking the easy option of melodrama.

Sadly, the story and characters lack the same level of richness. First-timer Joe Hill’s screenplay flirts knowingly with vintage gothic horror tropes, but lacks the wit to subvert or transcend them. Hooded phantoms, children in animal masks, sudden electrical blackouts, poorly lit basements, doors that mysteriously shut by themselves, dramatic thunderstorms – no creaky genre cliché is left unturned. Admittedly the final showdown packs a decent twist, even if it strains logic beyond breaking point.

Another problem is Stoppard, a rising television star in Britain, but a little too stiff and colorless for a leading feature role. In fairness, he is burdened with lines that often sound like the kind of portentous clunkers satirized by Simon Pegg in his arch horror spoofs. It also does not help that the apparent chief villains are played by amiable actors best known to UK viewers as TV comedians, blunting their credibility as possible psycho-killers.

Blackwood has quality ingredients and impressive visuals, but it never quite makes them scary or original enough. A pleasantly old-fashioned exercise in gothic horror, it should at least serve as a calling card for Wimpenny’s upcoming second feature, The Mandrake Experiment. It will also have special appeal to that hitherto overlooked niche audience who have long hungered to see a cross between The Shining and Downton Abbey.

Production company: Wildcard Films

Producer: Adam Morane-Griffiths

Starring: Ed Stoppard, Sophia Myles, Isaac Andrews, Paul Kaye, Russell Tovey

Director: Adam Wimpenny

Writer: J.S. Hill

Cinematographer: Dale McCready

Editor: Colin Sumsion

Production designer: Michael Howells

Music: Lorne Balfe

Sales company: Wildcard Films

Unrated, 100 minutes