Families moving into creepy haunted houses then things going bump in the night are the backbone of horror. It’s finding that slight tweak to the usual tropes that keeps things fresh. Debut filmmakers, director Adam Wimpenny and writer J.S. Hill have attempted that with British horror Blackwood, combining a traditional haunting with a psychological crime drama, and it’s executed very well.
College professor Ben Marshall (Ed Stoppard) wants a fresh start for his family, wife Rachel (Sophia Myles) and young son (Isaac Andrews), and moves them to a country house recently vacated by an old lady. As the Marshalls begin settling in, Ben begins witnessing presences, first thinking it’s his son playing around. When he then starts seeing ghosts, he goes looking for answers, investigating in particular, the history of former grounds man and ex-forces man Jack (Russell Tovey) while suspecting local vicar Father Patrick (Paul Kaye) of a cover up. However, things have a twist closer to home.
The first half of the film feels like any other British haunting, with ghostly figures making their presence known, the imagination running riot, and the ticking grandfather clock that stops at a key hour. The filmmakers seem to be exercising their love of the genre in portraying all the usual expectations and going for shock value as the camera becomes the first person (our viewpoint) roaming through the corridors. The film is also shot in a muted palette to add atmosphere and a sense of impending gloom.
It is necessary to pay attention though, as there are clues as to the source of the supernatural infestation from the word go. What unravels over time is not just the fragile mental state of our lead protagonist, Ben, that we discover very early on is on medication for some kind of stress-related illness, but the family unit. Ben’s condition throws doubt on the apparitions – even from our perspective, which is clever, and divides the family, allowing for other outside influences to manifest.
There are other possibilities that the filmmakers add in to throw us off the scent too. What is skilful is the final backtrack, as all the factors are linked. It’s like playing Cluedo with ghosts and inanimate objects, and for debut filmmaking, is very well achieved. The trouble is, to get to that point needs a lot of investment from the viewer to stick with what is essentially an average ghostly plot.
There are some very respectable performances from the likes of Stoppard, Myles, Tovey and Greg Wise as Ben’s fun-loving best friend Dominic the lothario. Kaye offers a surprise performance to his usual comedic turn too. The film also introduces young actor Andrews who manages to deliver the goods in his key starring moment. In this respect, the filmmakers have cast well.
All that said, it is a stretch to stay keen and faithful to the subject matter, as the genre naturally feels samey and tired, however intriguing the latest haunting might seem. It is with hindsight that you appreciate the work put into the story and the neat summing up of visual pointers. Blackwood is therefore a solid, sinister affair worth getting immersed in.