Friday, May 11, 2012

Wake Wood: All Creatures Great And Small

There are only so many stories you can tell. This is a true thing. I don't mean sequels, prequels, or reboots, but pretty much the same premise with different details. The sort of thing where you read a synopsis and say to yourself "I have already seen this", and how different could it be?

I am here to tell you that the details make quite a bit of difference. In the broad strokes, Wake Wood is pretty much Pet Sematary, but in the fine points, it tells a very different story and handles the same conceit with more maturity and grace.

Patrick and Louise lost their daughter, Alice, in a vicious dog attack (ironic, since Patrick is a veterinarian) and are trying to start their lives over again. They've moved to the small village of Wake Wood, where Patrick is taking over the veterinary practice from Arthur, who seems to have stepped straight out of a James Herriot book. Louise reopens a local pharmacy. They're trying to move on, but it's hard. Louise isn't ready to get rid of Alice's things. She holds them close. They can't have any more kids, and they've seen their only child torn apart in front of them.

They like Wake Wood well enough - they're going to be the new people, the city folk, for awhile, but they're settling in, and Arthur's been nothing but helpful with the transition. So when Patrick and Louise run into some car trouble, they make their way over to his estate to get some help, only to discover some sort of ritual in progress. The next day, Arthur drops by to explain…

Now, if you're at all familiar with the abovementioned Pet Sematary, you can probably see where this is going: Couple grieving the death of their child moves to a small town/village with some kind of mysterious secret related to the raising of the dead, couple does a thing they are Not Supposed To Do, and Bad Things happen. Honestly, that's not giving anything away. You can figure out that much just from looking at the poster. But the beats are different. It's the same song in a different tempo and key, and that makes them effectively different movies.

The story told in Pet Sematary is lurid, ghastly, very Tales From The Crypt.  Wake Wood, by contrast, is much more human, much more stately and sad. It's less a story about what lies on the other side of death (nothing good, according to Pet Sematary), and more about the problems of rebirth. The situation in Wake Wood is, in fine English tradition, one of a small village keeping the old ways right along with the new. There's nothing histrionic or bizarre about how Arthur and the town go about the business of resurrection, no robes and gibbering in forgotten languages, just the same calm, practiced hand that Patrick brings to his work with animals (it's no mistake that the resurrection process looks a lot like the delivery of a calf that Patrick performed early in the film). It's set in a quiet courtyard, among implements and tools that look repurposed from large-animal care, but not in a creepy way. It's all very practical and utilitarian. Even the more magical instruments and talismans they use look more practical than anything else. Resurrection, like birth, is a bloody, messy thing, but nobody minds because the end result is good.

So oddly enough, it isn't the supernatural elements of this story that really drive the scary part of the story - it's human frailty. It's people not accepting the limits placed on the gifts they've been given, stepping outside what they're allowed and paying the price for that. In a way, what makes Wake Wood special also makes it less effective as a horror movie. It's a great story about human weakness and not being satisfied with the time we're given, but the last act of the movie forgoes that narrative (and the wonderfully understated mood up to that point) for a more standard creepy-kid one that comes off as muddled, alluding to what seems like some terrible secret, except it turns out it wasn't a terrible secret, it was something we were supposed to guess early on, and so the dramatic impact is wasted.

We go from a moving character study to a lot of people dead because some kid is evil, we guess, because everyone keeps saying something is wrong? The story rights itself for its conclusion, which is as understated as the best of the movie and really fucking disturbing, but it's too bad the filmmakers didn't trust what they had instead of trying to do what Pet Sematary already did.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

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