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On Set: “THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 ANGEL OF DEATH,” Part Two

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The danger with a sequel to a film like THE WOMAN IN BLACK, this writer suggests to director Tom Harper, must lie 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 says that while we learn more about the ghostly Jennet Humfrye in THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 ANGEL OF DEATH, she’s still kept in the shadows as much as possible.

“As soon as you see the monster, for me, it’s no longer scary,” Harper elaborates during FANGORIA’s visit to the set of THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2, opening from Relativity Media this Friday (see the first part of our report here). “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 [played by Phoebe Fox]. 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.”

Screenwriter Jon Croker, meanwhile, points out that due to the WWII setting (during which teachers Eve and Jean, played by Helen McCrory, accompany a group of evacuated children to the haunted Eel Marsh House), all the film’s spaces, including the previously populated village, are now empty. “These locations all have ghosts built into them,” he says. “It’s a great variation on the theme. In the previous film, Arthur Kipps [Daniel Radcliffe] was only visiting the house, whereas the new characters are actually living there. That adds to the claustrophobia, in a way. And we’ve seen previously that the Woman in Black can actually leave the house and travel, so that allows us to build on the notion that there’s no respite. There’s nowhere they can go.”

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Following the headline casting of the post-Harry Potter Radcliffe in the original WOMAN IN BLACK, the selection of the relatively unknown Fox to take center stage for the sequel is an intriguing one. It’s a decision that stems from the period setting, with both Harper and producer/Hammer CEO Simon Oakes stressing how much they wanted a sort of ‘40s matinee-idol vibe for both Eve and Harry, a Royal Air Force pilot played by Jeremy Irvine. “Daniel was unique,” Oakes says, “and we’re eternally grateful to him for doing that film. He was amazing. But with Eve, we thought that if we found an unknown who had the chops, that could be wonderful. We were incredibly lucky. I’d seen Phoebe in the theater 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!” Fox laughs when those sentiments are related 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—and they were like, ‘Yes! We absolutely have to do that!’ ”

Having previously taken significant roles in Steven Spielberg’s WAR HORSE and last years’s WWII drama THE RAILWAY MAN, Irvine is perhaps more used to playing period military types, and being ready for his close-ups. He is 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 the decision 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 Fox (as she related in the first part of this story), Irvine says he’s not an avid horror-watcher, and is hoping THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 will be a sort of therapy. And he’s enjoying working with his young co-stars. “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 ones 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 f**king terrifying. Oaklee [Pendergast, as a mute child who senses the spirit] 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.”

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Of the three principals, it’s McCrory 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 horror,” she says 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 movie! 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 cast me in a film.”

Hammer thrills and cosmetic dentistry notwithstanding, McCrory does read some deeper, darker elements into her character and the context around her. “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, one 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 WOMAN IN BLACK 2’s cast and crew, absolutely integral to making this a successful film, and one in which the quality of its predecessor 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.”

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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About the author
Owen Williams
Owen Williams read English Literature at university during the '90s, but preferred the company of engineers and physicists because they liked STAR TREK and metal. A regular contributor to Empire magazine, he has also been widely published elsewhere, and lives in the South-East of England with an academic and a cat. He doesn’t really blog and very rarely tweets.
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