A reworking of W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw (1902) and Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983), WAKE WOOD also owes debts to the 1973 releases DON'T LOOK NOW and THE WICKER MAN. But despite all these reference points, the film successfully attempts a genuine Hammer rebirth around rebirth motifs.
HAMMER has been in a state of frustration since the 1980s. New beginnings always fizzled into oblivion, including a Warner Bros deal in 1993 which proposed a $100m programme of remakes, a deal with Firstsight Ltd announced at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and 2003 had a schedule issued by Queensland-based Pictures in Paradise. Then in 2007 it was announced that Dutch media tycoon John De Mol - whose production house invented the BIG BROTHER reality show - had purchased the Hammer rights to over 300 films in the studio's back catalogue, and the company was restarted under the guidance of Simon Oakes. The first output under the new regime was BEYOND THE RAVE - made in conjunction with Channel 4 - which premiered free on myspace in twenty, four-minute segments during 2008. This contemporary vampire serial with blasting techno (selected by dance-music maestro, Pete Tong, innit) and hip street lingo couldn't have been further from expectations.
David Keating's WAKE WOOD was the first of the new Hammer films to be shot, but the last to be released, after Matt Reeves' needless English language version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), LET ME IN (2010), and Antti Jokinen's voyeuristic mis-fire THE RESIDENT (2011). WAKE WOOD tells the story of Patrick (Aidan Gillen) and Louise (Eva Birthistle), who move to the Irish village of Wake Wood after their daughter Alice (Ella Connolly) is killed in a savage dog attack. One night, they stumble upon a ritual led by Arthur (Timothy Spall), and soon learn that the community has the power to bring the recently deceased back to life for three days. The couple desperately want to see Alice again, and so begins the latest ceremony where their daughter is "reborn" via the utilisation of another corpse - a farmer who died in an accident involving a bull - which is systematically pressed, cut, covered in mud and burnt to recreate a suitable husk.
Gillen and Birthistle are fine as the grieving parents - Birthistle should be used to menacing minors after THE CHILDREN (2008) - and Spall evidently enjoys his turn as the village elder with nocturnal habits, but it is the wide-eyed Connolly was is the most effective as the dead soul, switching from wholesome child to murderous spawn with relative ease. Made in conjunction with the Irish Film Board and the Swedish Film Institute, WAKE WOOD is a slow-burning and emotionally draining film which draws heavily from past cult favourites. Refreshingly old school with its English eccentricities and grue, this may, however, restrict its modern appeal, and acceptance may be limited to those enveloped in Hammer nostalgia.
During their years of inactivity, many intriguing Hammer projects were mentioned, ranging from Jamaican voodoo film THE WHITE WITCH OF ROSE HALL, epic television anthology THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HAMMER, and a mini-series based on Peter Norden's Salon Kitty (1970). Yet WAKE WOOD feels like the kind of film "new" Hammer should be making. With any reinvention of such a historic brand, production natures need to be tweaked, but a respect to their heritage is also important. Case in point is the new DOCTOR WHO, which is currently losing its prime time viewers in a whirlwind of riddles and bombastic CGI; it will be interesting to see over the coming years if Oakes will keep the ship away from revenue friendly crowd-pleasers, or commit to earthy releases with one eye on the past.