The ectoplasmic bitch is back, but Harry Potter is nowhere to be found in “The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death,” a handsomely made but dramatically inert and not very scary sequel to 2012’s surprise-hit ($127 million worldwide) Edwardian chiller. A talkier, more drawn-out affair than its spare, elegant predecessor, and minus Daniel Radcliffe’s impressive lead performance, this second helping of imperiled-child ooga-booga from the revivified Hammer horror factory will be hard pressed to scare off the competition from several robust holiday holdovers (“The Hobbit,” “Into the Woods,” “Unbroken”) when it materializes in theaters this weekend.
Based on a 1983 novella by British horror author Susan Hill, which had previously served as the basis for a long-running West End stage drama, the first “Woman in Black” movie mined surprising riches from its rather familiar tale of a foggy, boggy British coastal town haunted by a vengeful spirit with a yen for funereal couture and for the souls of innocent young children (payback for the loss of her own young son decades prior). What that movie lacked in originality it made up for in thickly creepy atmosphere and a willingness to let large chunks of the story unfold without any dialogue, as Radcliffe’s widowed solicitor gradually came to realize he wasn’t alone in the old dark manor, Eel Marsh House, to prepare for a sale.
The precise alchemy of an effective movie scare is nearly as elusive as the formula for a funny joke, but “The Woman in Black” managed to nail it — so much so that one was willing to overlook some of the narrative’s more glaring leaps in logic, such as why the good people of Crythin Gifford didn’t merely pack up and move to another village rather than watching their young’uns picked off one by one over the years. (Perhaps it was a bad real-estate market.) Directed by James Watkins with a lot of obvious love for classic haunted-house fare like “The Haunting” and “The Innocents,” it was a movie that knew how to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Watching “Angel of Death,” they only occasionally quiver.
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The time is now 1941, and Crythin Gifford lies seemingly abandoned, save for the requisite scary old blind man and, of course, its resident restless spirit. Yet somehow, this literal and figurative ghost town is deemed the perfect place to house a dozen preteen schoolchildren who are being evacuated from London at the height of the Blitz. And so they go, chaperoned by their kindly teacher Ms. Parkins (appealing newcomer Phoebe Fox) and stern headmistress (Helen McCrory), out of the frying pan and into a new kind of (hell)fire.
The idea of setting a horror story against the real-life horrors of England during WWII certainly holds promise, but if the first “Woman in Black” was laudable for its slow-burn intensity, “Angel of Death” is more of a slow lukewarm. In fact, nothing much happens at all for the first hour of the new movie (which was written by Jon Croker, from a story by Hill herself), aside from a few floorboards creaking, doors slamming and decrepit wind-up toys being brought mysteriously back to life. It’s clear that the Woman in Black (aka Jennet Humfrye) is stirring again, but boy does she take her sweet time about making a full-fledged appearance.
Drawn to the darkness that lurks in the souls of the living, Humfrye here takes a particular interest in Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), a shy, recently orphaned boy who has retreated from the world, and in Ms. Parkins, whose ever-cheerful smile all too predictably masks a shameful secret from her own past. And because there’s always room for one more at Eel Marsh House’s group therapy table, “Angel of Death” also offers up a potential love interest for its bachelorette schoolteacher in the form of Harry Burnstow, a handsome (but traumatized) Army pilot played by “War Horse” star Jeremy Irvine with such comically square-jawed stoicism that he inadvertently recalls Robert Hays in the “Airplane!” movies.
Helming his second feature (after 2009’s well-received “The Scouting Book for Boys”), Tom Harper is one of that breed of British craftsmen directors for whom bombed-out period streets, smoky railway platforms and soggy marshes are what a bikini-clad girl in a Ferrari is to Michael Bay, and those visual gifts get a valuable aid here from cinematographer George Steel, who works from an even more monochromatic palette than the previous film, suggesting that wartime England was a virtually colorless world, save for articles of women’s clothing (which pop from the meticulously drab frames with an almost Technicolor intensity). It isn’t just color that’s been drained from the movie, though. As the body count (finally) begins to rise and panic sets in, Harper manages a couple of reasonably jolting scares, mostly through shock edits and sudden shrieks on the soundtrack — or surges of the musical score credited to composers Marco Beltrami, Marcus Trumpp and Brandon Roberts.
But a truly memorable ghost story needs more than that, and “The Woman in Black” found it in Radcliffe’s anguished grace, and in the grief-stricken townsfolk living out their cursed existence. Nothing in “Angel of Death” tugs nearly so effectively at the heart — or, more importantly, the jugular.