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New Release Review - Blackwood (DVD)

Attempting to save their marriage, a couple relocate to a mysterious house in rural England.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Adam Wimpenny

Starring: Ed Stoppard, Sophia Myles, Russell Tovey


In horror, the present is painted upon the canvas of the past; shadows of what has gone before defining the picture’s composition in dark anterior shades that cannot be daubed over. In Adam Wimpenny’s Blackwood, Ben Marshall (Ed Stoppard) is a history lecturer, relocating to a sleepy pile in rural Sussex in a last bid attempt to save his marriage and family, which are overshadowed by his former indiscretions. With ancient history his business, and prior actions fracturing his domesticity, the past already weighs heavy upon Ben’s current situation. And then, in the middle of the night, as if sensing his weakness, strange figures, ostensibly the house’s former residents, appear to haunt the increasingly fraught historian. In Blackwood House, the past, present and future will collide in ways that are both disturbing and shocking.
Blackwood opens with clouds gathering and the stark black branches of a winter wood; cutting to static shots of the manor’s empty courtyard, hollow corridors and antique interiors. The production values are gorgeous; this is the realm of Quality Horror; of chiaroscuro lighting, formidable locations and a thoughtful, mature script. Blackwood takes its time as it establishes the splintered family dynamics of the Marshalls; Sophia Myles plays Ben’s wife, Rachel, with subdued energy, while an impressive Isaac Andrews brings a bruised innocence as their son Harry. We meet Ben’s cocky mate Dominic (an amusingly hammy Greg Wise) and his ingénue partner Jessica (Joanna Vanderham), and see Harry develop an unusual friendship with local weirdo Jack (the great Russell Tovey; an actor who is far too sweet and vulnerable to really convince as a threat here). One of the film’s strengths is the subtle drawing of the two couples’ duplicitous affiliations, all stolen glances and delicately unspoken suspicions. In this sense, it is more constructive to think of Blackwood as a drama shaded with supernatural hues, with the film using such recognisably domestic problems as rising damp, a leaky cellar and a career squandered to motherhood in order to deliberately build character and situation. The stately paced development of plot and fraught atmosphere is crucial to the film’s devastating final impact, wherein what we may have originally read as generic flourishes (the cattle prod jumps, the shiftiness of Jack) actually have a narrative bearing far beyond their initial shock tactics.
Ed Stoppard is particularly good as Ben; his character balances helplessness with a sense of vain superiority, and Stoppard manages to retain a crucial sympathy for him throughout. The mystery is also handled well and what is especially satisfying is Blackwood’s abundance of horror clichés- the creepy childlike figure in a mask, the fateful click of a grandfather clock, the impetuous kid who continually runs off into the woods/the dark- which are actually used here in a manner both clever and meaningful, with each hoary trope eventually being revealed to mean something entirely different to what we are originally led to believe.  In this sense, Blackwood achieves something relatively unique- like Ben, we think we are all over this plot, sighing as we predict what will happen next and checking off the genre staples. However, when the plot does reach its disturbing climax, we realise that just as Ben presumes to comprehend the house’s dark mysteries, we’ve also been fooled by underestimating this impressive film, which has in fact been manipulating us the entire time.
Blackwood is Adam Wimpenny’s first major feature, in which he looks to the heritage of British horror in order create a film that feels fresh and distinctive, mining the past to fashion something fresh. Here’s to his dark future.
Extras
A real forest of extras here. There is a Making Of where everyone talks about how wonderful it was to work on the film, but which is ultimately to be avoided; not simply because the crew’s superlatives become a bit dull, but for the unforgivable reason that one of the film’s major shocks is revealed within the first few minutes! There is also the film’s trailer, along with the short Roar, which is well worth a watch for its well-crafted suspense. Finally, there is Wimpenny’s commentary, which is candid and engaging; the director fluently detailing the process of filming Blackwood with the right mixture of anecdotes and technical discussion.





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