It’s unfair to tag David Keating’s Wake Wood as a reworking of Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary (filmed by Mary Louise Lambert in 1989), since King’s tale of grieving parents who magically resurrect their dead child and learn to regret this violation of the natural order was already a conscious variation on W.W. Jacobs’ much-reprinted (and adapted) short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. In a review of the novel, Ramsey Campbell pointed out a crucial lapse that hurts King’s story – the resurectee is not really the lost child but a malign spirit in the kid’s body, which makes the last act a melodramatic chase rather than an exercise in familial anguish. Though Wake Wood’s Alice has a demonic streak, Keating ‘corrects’ King in making the little girl as much herself as monster – even her most gruesome acts come from her own desires and urges, killing a dog because she was killed by one and lashing out against the unborn sibling she fears will replace her when she is back in the ground.
As a self-conscious genre exercise, following Let Me In in the canon of the back-from-the-grave Hammer Films (an odd parallel: both films feature scenes in which unnatural little girls cross an invisible barrier and begin to bleed alarmingly), the film has to take some short-cuts. The central couple, well-played by Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle (still torn by a conflict with a possessed younger generation, as in The Children), enter into the sort of compact with a genial magician (a sly Timothy Spall) which anyone with a cursory knowledge of horror literature would be shy of. As a set of ‘rules’ are established (about how long the subject can have been ‘under the ground’ and the limitations imposed on the resurrected child) which the perhaps-devilish elder can’t possibly expect the unwary fools to abide by and which, in due course, are all broken.
Conventional in outline (down to an ending which suggests – as in Pet Sematary – that the survivors haven’t learned from the ordeal), Wake Wood offers an unusual mythology for its temporary resurrections, involving a corpse, farm machinery, mud, totems, twig-and-string ‘clutches’ to bind the living dead and the expected chanting, with the child reborn in bloody slime out of a baked flesh-and-dirt cocoon. The early stages, blearily shot to convey the numbed emotional state of the protagonists, are measured and underplayed, but the dead animals eventually pile up, blood runs freely during the little monster’s rampage and big-eyed Ella Connolly makes for an alarming evil child.