The ghost story has had a resurgence lately in film and television. Perhaps the increasing reliance on distancing technology and social media has lead to a desire to retread older forms that now seem prescient but there’s no doubt that the genre as a whole is alive and well, especially for commercially minded lower budget film; the blueprint set up by Hammer’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black in 2012. Whilst this movement of films no doubt pales in comparison to its 1970s counterpart (especially when taking into account the more schlocky entries such as the Paranormal Activity series), there’s a fast solidifying trend of decent quality ghost related cinema and Adam Wimpenny’s Blackwood (2013) is a perfect example of this decent, though not overly mind-blowing, trend.
Blackwood follows an extremely unlikeable upper-middle class university lecturer and his family as they relocate for his job to a spooky house in the countryside named Blackwood. The arrogant, ex TV presenting, historian lecturer, Ben Marshall (Ed Stoppard), is increasingly plagued by visions in the house that seem to make no real sense. He is tormented by a strange number of visual and aural phenomena, the most striking being a small child, wielding a knife and wearing a wooden owl mask (an increasingly popular image in many low budget folk horror films) though their meaning makes up the real crux of the film. He gradually becomes suspicious of the local vicar (Paul Kaye) and an ex-service man (Russell Tovey) whom he suspects of having murdered his wife and child in the grounds of the house and goes out of his way to prove it.
As a visual exercise in ghost story cliché, Blackwood is stunning to look at. Whilst it doesn’t make anywhere near enough use of its landscape as it could (especially aurally), it is stunning to watch and is wonderfully eerie; especially in its explicit winter-time shots that look atmospheric and crisp. The scene is also set with marvellous location work, again filled with ghost story norms such as stone circles, empty forests, village churches, and even the local woodcutting workshop. This strangely surmises the real enjoyment of the film as well as its downfall. For while the narrative is pleasingly innovative in its twist and conclusion, Blackwood seems more like a ghost story greatest hits compilation than a real attempt to find something new within the genre.
That’s not to say it doesn’t try any sort of update whatsoever. One particularly effective scene stands out for its update into the modern world of hauntings. While Ben is going into the cellar to reset the fuse box, he has to use his I-Phone for a light even though it constantly goes off with that ever familiar click. It builds suspense nicely though some of the hauntings in particular seem less effective in hindsight simply because of the necessity to adhere to the narrative twist later on. Much more could be made of several ghostly phenomena but the fact that they must service the overall narrative arc means that they ultimately fail to scare with the occasional exception of several loud “Lewton Bus” effects.
Blackwood‘s more effective moments come from its character analysis and psychological strands; indeed it resembles Hammer’s Fear in the Night (1972) and Paranoiac (1963) more than Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968). Most characters are largely unlikable and occasionally bland but this makes their retribution oddly enjoyable. Ben’s lecturer friend Dominic (Greg Wise in his second ghost story role, the first being Number 13 in 2006) visits several times and becomes a key figure in the narrative. He can’t help but come across as enjoyably slimy, especially when they recall their hedonistic pasts at Oxford. The best ghost stories torture these types of establishment figures and Blackwood takes great lengths to show the arrogance of these academic men, both of whom fail to see the sacrifice the people around them have made in order to let them further their careers.
When Blackwood‘s twist does come, it feels pleasantly like finding the missing segment of a puzzle; the narrative that has already gone by realigning as each haunted moment becomes poignant and circular in a way similar to, though not as effective as, The Signalman (1976). Whilst many of these moments seem witty, they do tend to go on a bit as if having to recount for everything that has been seen is more of a priority than actually leaving some things ambiguous, as is often necessary for the ghost story form to work. This isn’t to say however that Blackwood isn’t enjoyable or well made. It is both and, as long as it is not approached with the expectation of the layered hauntings of say, The Stone Tape (1972) or Schalcken the Painter (1979), it provides enough substance to be another addition to an already ghost filled year to sit alongside The Borderlands (2013), The Quiet Ones (2014), and perhaps even another BBC Ghost Story at Christmas if we are lucky.