★ ★ ½
The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death has a great sense of atmosphere, and unfortunately, little else. Apparently the original film, which starred Daniel Radcliffe as a widower lawyer menaced by ghosts in Edwardian-era England, made enough money to turn this concept into a full-blown series (the bar for franchising horror movies is clearly very low these days), and this sequel at least takes the unusual approach of jumping forward in time and following a completely different set of characters in a different era as they encounter the titular villainess. That’s an interesting, more flexible framework for a horror saga, but it’s undermined here by a paper-thin story, dull characters, and a lame monster.
This entry opens in 1941 London, where the citizens live in fear of aerial bombings by the Germans. Schoolteacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) and headmistress Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) are tasked with evacuating a small group of children to the countryside where they’ll be safe, although probably not since their destination is the haunted mansion from the original (was there really nowhere else in Britain that could have housed two adult women and a half-dozen small kids?). Things start out gloomy and just proceed to spiral downwards, from disturbing dreams to waking hallucinations to actual death.
There’s one huge, obvious problem with this film: The Woman in Black has to be one of the least compelling antagonists in recent cinema. She doesn’t have a physical presence to assault people with, so her modus operandi is to drive the living (usually children) to suicide. If the filmmakers wanted to go down that route, however, they needed to make a psychological horror movie with clearly defined characters, where we understand exactly what would drive them to end their lives. But Eve and her potential beau, a hunky pilot named Harry (Jeremy Irvine), are two-dimensional at best—their character development is limited to finding out they’re both suffering from past traumas that, of course, directly impact the plot—and everyone else is a total cipher. So the Woman in Black’s power really just amounts to giving kids the sudden urge to stick forks in the electrical sockets (not an actual method of death used here, but you get the point).
It’s a shame, because the movie looks great: The cinematography by George Steel is muted and chilly, with rich shadows hiding God knows what in the corners of the frames. And the milieu of Blitz-era England gives everything a feeling of urgency even before the Woman in Black makes herself known. If this is going to become a perennial horror franchise, is it too late to recast the title role? Give us a monster that can do more than just provide fake-out jump scares, and you might have something.