A bunch of London children are packed up and shipped off to a huge house in the country for safekeeping during World War II. And once there, they find something rather unexpected.
Sounds a little like the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, doesn’t it? Except there’s no magical wardrobe ready to spirit curious kiddos off to a nifty land named Narnia in this tale—just a creepy old cellar, a supposedly locked nursery and lots of disturbing playthings. There’s no lion, either. But a witch? Oh, yes. There’s a witch.
No white witch, this one, but a mysterious, ghoulish figure who skulks through the house dressed all in black. She died in the house some time ago, but her sadness and hate make her linger. And she does love little children—to death. She’d like nothing more than have this new busload of little ones stay with her … forever.
Thankfully, the children haven’t come to the house alone. They’re under the supervision of two plucky caregivers—the older and strict Jean Hogg and the young and sympathetic Eve Parkins. They’re tasked with keeping these kids (at least one of whom was recently orphaned) safe and (their gloomy living arrangements notwithstanding) reasonably happy.
Jean, as well-meaning as she is, isn’t particularly well-adapted to dealing with the supernatural threat lurking in the home’s hallways. But Eve quickly realizes the peril and shows considerable moxie in battling the children’s shadowy tormentor. Indeed, she risks her life to protect them. Even when she and most of the children have gotten out safely, she returns to the very dangerous house to save one who was dragged back there.
She gets some unexpected help. A young pilot named Harry takes a shine to Eve, and he stops by occasionally to make sure everything’s going OK. Though he’s dealing with some pretty serious emotional baggage of his own, Harry eventually faces his greatest fears to rescue others in the midst of great peril.
The Woman in Black—named Jennet—is dead, and she looks the part. Her face is partly obscured by a black veil, but she still manages to look suitably corpselike and hideous. She causes a great many disturbances in the house and can apparently convince folks of the need to kill themselves.
Jennet also has a bit of a Medusa thing going on: People who see her die sooner or later, we’re told, and Eve instructs those in her charge to close their eyes when they feel Jennet’s presence. While their eyes are closed, she instructs them to recite a little prayer that includes this poetic stanza: “Four corners to my bed/Four angels ’round my head/One to watch, one to pray/And two to bear my soul away.”
The kids also chant, “And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
It’s suggested that a dead loved one is watching over them, protecting them from Jennet. A cross sticks out of the marsh, marking a place where someone died.
A quick aside: Eve’s name means “source of life” in Hebrew. Interesting in this context.
We learn that Eve had a child out of wedlock and had to give it up. It’s a familiar refrain in the house; Jennet also had a child she was forced to give up, being declared mentally unfit. We see Eve’s and Harry’s mutual attraction (a hug and a kiss).
Jennet “kills” people by making them kill themselves. One child wanders to the beach and is found tangled in barbed wire, dead. Another nearly strangles herself with red yarn: Blood runs down her nose as she twists. A kid stuffs rags into an old gas mask and puts it on, asphyxiating herself. Someone drowns. Etcetera. Jennet hanged herself in the nursery ages ago after watching her son die in the marsh, and we see visions of both the noose and her death. Ghostly hands claw at people in the water, trying to keep them from reaching the surface. Another hand emerges from a crib, clutching a woman’s throat.
A couple of bullies trap a boy in a room, leading to unfortunate consequences. Glass on a picture frame shatters. A man breaks a window. A bird hits another window. Eve is nearly attacked by a human assailant. We learn that Harry’s plane crashed, killing some men under his command. We hear about people dying in the bombings and see sections of London destroyed.
Harry smokes a couple of cigarettes.
It seems like many of the scariest supernatural horror villains I’ve heard of or seen lately have been women. Bathsheba from The Conjuring, Mama from Mama, all those stringy-haired girls from Japanese-inspired horror flicks like The Ring … There’s something particularly subversive about casting females in these roles, I think—particularly when they (as happens here) prey on children. We associate women, naturally, with motherhood. A mom would do anything to protect her kids, we believe—and so when we see that maternal instinct twisted into something horrific, it bothers us maybe a bit more than when we see the same behavior coming from men.
The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is indeed a bothersome, disturbing movie, full of atmospheric creeps and umpteen jump scenes. There’s not as much visceral content as you might expect from such a scarefest: Little to no sexuality on display, hardly any language and surprisingly spare quantities of blood. But all that may in this case be a bit beside the point, because there’s also very little redemptive value lurking in this darkness.
“Our own worst enemy is ourselves,” Jean says. “Our fears. Doubts. Despair. That’s what will destroy us.” We see people try to clear their minds of such negative thoughts. Optimism, the movie suggests, is the key to pushing back its cold, black villains. And we see some noble efforts in that regard.
Keep calm and smile at the demon, you might say. But since when does that sort of thing save the day? In the end we’re left—as we were in the first movie—with a feeling of sad, spooky inevitability: No matter how much courage our heroes show, or how fervently they want to grin wide enough to dispel the evil, We get the sense that Jennet will just keep on stalking those gloomy halls—and perhaps venture beyond them, too.
The Woman in Black cannot be stopped with a cheery greeting or a double dose of grit and gumption. Not, at least, as long as there’s money to be made in the business of sequels.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.