I wrote features for Empire and Fangoria about The Woman in Black: Angel of Death from my visit to the Oxfordshire set in the autumn of 2013. This is the Fangoria feature that went on their website in two halves (but isn’t there anymore since the relaunch under new ownership). There was also another Fango version in the print magazine, formatted as a Q&A. Scroll down for that.

We were promised fire. It’s approaching midnight on a cold night in November 2013, and Fangoria is shivering on an abandoned military airbase in Oxfordshire. The base itself is a vast expanse of desolate darkness, but we’re at least benefitting from the floodlights set up on a stretch of former runway, as the crew of Hammer’s The Woman In Black: Angel of Death prepare for a climactic sequence. In the pouring rain – courtesy of enormous rain machines – the dreadful shade of Jennet Humfrye is supposed to appear, heralded both by the storm and the spontaneous combustion of several fire baskets. Before that happens, however, there’s the small matter of getting the deluge to actually show up on camera. We huddle beneath a canvas lean-to, outside of which is an absolute monsoon, but on the monitor it looks as if nothing’s happening. Resigned to re-think the shot tomorrow, director Tom Harper calls a wrap for the night, and Fango is denied its explosions. “That’s a great irony,” chuckles Hammer CEO Simon Oakes. “Failing to make rain in England…”

Soggy technical hitches aside, all involved are extremely happy with the way the film has been progressing. The reason we’re on an air base at all is that the follow-up to 2012’s The Woman In Black takes place many years afterwards, during the Second World War: a concept hit upon by Susan Hill, author of the original Woman In Black novella, first published in 1983. 

“The mythology created in the original novella and in Jane Goldman’s script, and the idea of The Woman In Black’s survival, her winning, the curse continuing, was always intriguing,” Oakes tells us. “I asked Susan why she’d never continued it herself: even though the ending of the novella is somewhat different from our film, clearly the Woman In Black has won the day. She was worried that it would seem a bit commercial! But she said she’d think about it, and some months later she was writing in Norfolk, and she told me she’d been very spooked, and her imagination fired, by the disused, weedy, ghost-ridden airfields on her drive from Norfolk back to Suffolk. That was the inspiration for the period, and that was terrific. We may have gone ahead anyway, but we wanted that initial spark to come from Susan.”

Hill’s original thoughts were that Eel Marsh House, the home of The Woman In Black and the setting for book and the first film, would have been requisitioned as a military hospital during WWII. During development, however, that gradually changed, and the set-up now is that the house has become a home for evacuee children, shipped out of London during The Blitz in the company of two of their teachers, Eve (Phoebe Fox) and Jean (Helen McRory). On their arrival they encounter Royal Air Force bomber pilot Harry (Jeremy Irvine) who becomes embroiled in their ordeal with the malevolent spirit, despite harbouring dark secrets of his own.

“The hospital idea was put on paper in quite a long treatment at some point,” explains screenwriter John Croker. “But the curse is that whenever the Woman In Black is seen, a child dies, and we just decided we didn’t want to break the rules. There are no obvious children in the military hospital idea, so we then though a school was a better fit for the mythology.”

Where the 2012 film was structured around three separate visits to a single house (with welcome respite in trips to the village of Crythin Gifford), Angel Of Death will be making significant use of four locations. We will, of course, be returning to Eel Marsh, but alongside that causeway ruin, the village and the airfield, there are also significant sequences in a bunker beneath those desolate runways.

That’s in story terms at least. In practice the bunker set is situated in a warehouse about half a mile from the ex-RAF base. The bunker itself is kitted out in impressive detail, much of which will barely register on screen. Newspaper cartoons are pinned to the wall along with a map of the coast and a poster bellowing “Know Your Gasses!” Long and narrow, there’s a control room with radio equipment at the far end, and in amongst the arc lamps and coils of wire littering the floor are mattresses belonging to the kids and their academic guardians. 

The scene in progress as Fangoria arrives, earlier in the day than the runway rainstorm, involves the dozen children, the two teachers and Harry, settling into their new bolthole for the night, having fled their intended home for obvious reasons. One of the children asks if it’s true that there’s a ghost. Eve says it is. Another child, Edward – a mute boy played by Oaklee Prenderghast – has a creepy looking sailor doll he found in the house. He’s supposed to have left it behind, but somehow it’s come with them. During their vigil there’s suddenly the sound of somebody saying a nursery rhyme (the intended voices representing ghosts of earlier Humfrye victims will be dubbed in post-production), at which point Eve leaps to her feet and begins yelling in defiance at the ghost she knows is present but can’t yet see. Then the lights go out…

“I don’t watch this sort of thing as a rule,” Fox grins at Fango in between takes. “I scare very easily, which is probably great for doing this. My fear is real! I rather reluctantly watched the first film after I got the job, and after that, my friends thought it was really funny to make me watch things like Paranormal Activity as ‘research’. But I actually found The Woman In Black scarier. I was watching it behind my hands with my brother-in-law, who was a nightmare. We got half way and I was like, ‘Right, I think I’ve got the idea. I don’t need to see the rest’. And he made me watch it for ‘closure’. I didn’t feel any closure. I just felt terrified! I keep going home and turning off all the lights and getting that ‘she’s here’ feeling. People are not sleeping well on this job, I don’t think.”

The danger with a sequel to a film like The Woman In Black must, we suggest, be in the temptation to enhance the role of a title character who works best the less she’s seen. There’s also the potential problem of dissipating the first film’s claustrophobia by broadening the canvas, but Harper tells us that while we learn more about Jennet herself, she’ll still be kept in the shadows as much as possible. 

“As soon as you see the monster, for me, it’s no longer scary,” the director elaborates. “There certainly won’t be any lingering close-ups of her.” Producer Richard Jackson adds, “What Tom is doing is keeping an emotionally tight focus primarily on the character of Eve. If we’ve got it right it’ll be the combination of the production design and Tom’s framing that will keep that feeling of being trapped and closed in.” 

Croker, meanwhile, points out that, due to the war setting, all the film’s spaces, including the previously populated village, are now empty. “These locations all just have ghosts built into them,” he promises. “It’s a great variation on the theme. In the previous film, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) was only visiting the house, whereas the characters this time are actually living in it. That actually adds to the claustrophobia in a way. And we’ve seen previously that The Woman In Black herself can actually leave the house and travel, so that allows us to build on the notion that there’s just no respite. There’s nowhere they can go.” 

Following the headline casting of the just post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe last time, the placing of the relatively unknown Fox centre stage for the sequel is an intriguing one. It’s a decision that stems from the film’s period setting, with both Harper and Oakes stressing how much they wanted a sort of ‘40s matinee idol vibe for both Eve and Harry. 

“The first one was very much about Kipps’ relationship with his deceased wife,” says Oakes. “In this case it’s a living relationship between Harry and Eve. Daniel was unique, I think, and we’re eternally grateful to him for doing the film. He was amazing. But with Eve we thought if we found an unknown who had the chops, that could be wonderful. We were incredibly lucky. I’d seen Phoebe in the theatre playing [King Lear’s] Cordelia, and she came in for a screen test and absolutely nailed it. She’s got an incredible, old-fashioned movie star talent.”

“I’m glad they’re saying that!” laughs Fox when we relate those sentiments to her. “It’s the first I’ve heard of it! I’m not intentionally channelling Ingrid Bergman. Although actually, we were filming a scene on a train – I think it’s the only time in the film I don’t look absolutely harrowed! – and I had a hat on that covered half my face. As a joke I said they had to get the Bergman shot where it’s from above and my head is down… They were like, ‘Yes! We absolutely have to do that!’”

Having taken significant roles in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and 2014’s WWII drama The Railway Man, Irvine is perhaps more used to playing period military men, and to being ready for his close-ups. He’s not, however, quite yet dealing with the herbal cigarettes his character has to chain-smoke (they have to be herbal to protect the young lungs of the child actors around him). 

“I was regretting deciding to make him a smoker around day three,” he laughs between hacking his lungs up. “Every time you go for either food or cigarettes it’s always a mistake. But there you go, it’s good fun!” Like his co-star, he says he’s not an avid horror-watcher and is hoping Angel Of Death will be some sort of therapy. But he’s enjoying working with the children. 

“If you think of some of the really great movies like The Shining and The Others, they all use kids,” he muses, “and we’ve got really good kids here. They’re hilarious! We just mess around playing Top Trumps between takes, and then you get on set with them and they start doing their creepy stuff and it’s fucking terrifying. Oaklee is a scary, scary little guy! Then five seconds later you’re making fart and willy jokes again. It’s bollocks that you shouldn’t work with children. They’re the best. I find it quite inspiring. I have to take a minute to sort my head out and get into character, but these kids can just get straight into it.”

Of the three principals, it’s McRory who seems most appreciative of the weight of history behind playing a role in a Hammer film. “I’ve been telling people I’m doing a Hammer House of Horror,” she tells us proudly, “and everyone goes, ‘Really?’ It’s fantastic! I get to do the scream when The Woman In Black finally arrives! A scream in a Hammer House! My preparation was that I took one of my normal fillings out and replaced it with a white filling. That’s the sort of dedication you get when you get me in a film.” 

Hammer thrills and cosmetic dentistry notwithstanding however, McRory does read some deeper, darker elements into her character and the context around her. “I think there are things in this that are deeply psychologically disturbing,” she shudders. “The idea of a young group of children being taken away from the Blitz in WWII to a place that’s supposed to be safe when in fact children are disappearing one by one, is horrifying. And I wonder, if you were serving in a war, or you were a parent of a serving officer or soldier who had been killed, what would it be like if you believed that the dead could actually come back?” 

“People sometimes talk about the ‘Blitz spirit’ as this hugely positive thing,” adds  Croker, “where everyone banded together in mutual support. But I thought there must have been a negative underside to that, of just utter despair. That’s a great emotional state to set a horror film in.”

Universal human themes to underpin the horror are, for the cast and production crew of The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death, absolutely the key to making this a successful film, and one in which the quality of the first is maintained. “It’s a high bar,” says producer Ben Holden, “but I think Susan is comfortable that the right people are adapting her material. Hammer had franchises before the concept existed, so it’s nice to do something in keeping with the old studio. We’d love it if we could deliver a Woman In Black again and again, but we’ll have to see how this one does first!”

Back at the airfield an owl hovers high above, as the crew pack up and the lights are turned out. It’s so dark that even the headlights of Fango’s car don’t illuminate much as we try to find our way off the base. And yet somehow, we feel rather uneasily, someone is watching us as we leave…


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