The Woman in Black
Directed by James Watkins
Screenplay by Jane Goldman
Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds
How long is The Woman in Black? 95 minutes.
What is The Woman in Black rated? PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images.
Hammer’s New Horror Recalls Simpler Times
In one of the most basic types of horror story, an outsider arrives in a small country village on business, only to find himself treated with suspicion and quiet hostility by the locals, until he discovers that they are living in fear of something they dare not mention. In these situations, it pays to listen to the superstitious, the bereaved, and the seemingly mad. But nobody ever bothers until it’s too late.
The new adaptation of Susan Hill’s beloved ghost story The Woman In Black hearkens to a bygone age when many of the best horror films hung on this no-frills premise. The third or fourth major effort by newly revived Hammer Film Productions, this is so far the most reminiscent of its studio’s golden age. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a London lawyer struggling to make ends meet. Widowed young and trying his best to raise a little boy, he is hanging from a very thin thread professionally. He takes the grand and thankless assignment of sorting out an estate in the North Country, where an old woman has died and left a massive ruin of a house without any kin to keep it. The house, by the way, is on the most astonishingly bleak stretch of English marsh you ever saw in your life.
No sooner does Arthur arrive in the misty village where his business waits, than the local folk begin doing their best to hustle him back on his way again. They seem especially concerned that his intrusion in their community might be bad for the children somehow. The children, staring wide-eyed at Arthur through windows and over walls, seem to agree. Determined to see his errand through, he makes his way to the dreaded Eel Marsh House (I know, right?) despite their protests. Once there, he begins a series of close encounters with a spectral… you guessed it… woman in black. In the act of settling affairs at Eel Marsh, he uncovers a blood-chilling history of tragedy and vengeance, which soon puts him in as much danger as anyone else. His sole ally is a local gentleman possessed of both wealth and skepticism (Ciarán Hinds) who helps Arthur fend off the townsfolk, but nonetheless urges caution and lends his faithful dog to Arthur’s enterprise… just for company. Sure. Company…
Everyone in town is hiding the same ugly secret, and only by probing to the bottom will Arthur understand the stakes of his mission. The really frightening thing about supernatural evil is that you do not have to offend it consciously. Sometimes all you have to do is stray too close and be noticed for it to turn its wrath against you.
The best way to watch The Woman In Black, especially as it builds steam in the first half hour, is to enjoy it like one of the old Hammer Dracula pictures with Christopher Lee. Get ready for sprawling country wasteland, run-down graveyards, twitchy villagers, and the promise of dreadful visitations from beyond the grave. The lack of subtlety in the dialogue, as well as the overzealous reminders of Arthur’s inner turmoil, are forgivable once the film has sufficiently explained itself and Daniel Radcliffe has taken on the serious business of ghost hunting. Once the spooks begin in earnest, dialogue takes a backseat to long, dark hallways with something moving around in them.
Director James Watkins does an impressive job of hiding his monster — ghost that is — until an appropriate climax. Rather than venturing too far into the light, to expose either computer-generated fakery or snicker-worthy makeup, The Woman In Black generally appears cloaked in shadow, and just a little out of focus.
The Woman In Black is an old-fashioned ghost story, in which persistent malice and dread override any certainty that things will come to right in the end. In the original novel, we first meet Arthur Kipps as an older man, haunted by memories of grief and terror, but presumably no longer by anything outside his own mind. This adaptation dispenses with the framing narrative — the story within a story — so that we may wonder until the final moment what will become of him.
The film trims and rearranges numerous details of Hill’s book to suit a 90-minute thriller, but does not alter the simple, macabre tale at its root. The Woman In Black has gratifying echoes not only of classic Hammer horror, but also of Jack Clayton’s excellent 1961 ghost film The Innocents, based on Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw. By comparison, this new movie grossly overplays its shock scares, but offers just as many moments of silent, dawning terror as we catch a glimpse of something that Arthur has not yet seen lurking behind him. And what better place for sustained periods of quiet dread than an abandoned child’s nursery, truly the most powerful asset of a Victorian horror story.
In between these extremes of suspense and shock are several surprisingly vivid moments of horror, as the curse manifests itself well outside the bounds of the haunted house. This movie has style pouring out its orifices, along with barrels of moody acting which, while effective, will make it no easier for Radcliffe to put Harry Potter behind him. There’s even a scene in which, soiled and exhausted in the wake of disaster, he gives everyone a look of pleading anguish while they unfairly blame it all on him. (“You’ve ruined everything again, Potter!”) At least Radcliffe gets to look natty in a waistcoat and sideburns this time around. The gloomy atmosphere is first-rate. The writing is passable, and the photography nothing special apart from sublime art direction. What tips the scales so strongly in this movie’s favor is that The Woman In Black does not shy away from grim, awful consequences that fate visits so lavishly on the blameless and unsuspecting. This gravity and boldness elevate the movie beyond the level of some hackneyed scare-fest. The story’s conclusion is not so terribly unpredictable, but neither is it the sort of weak-sister bait and switch that makes many horror films unbearable in their final minutes. This film does not quite achieve the dizzying depths of Let Me In, its Hammer sibling of two years ago, nor does it top The Innocents, but it comes close in several places.
This may not be the kind of film you will want to relive over and over again. See it now in theaters, and later acquire it for your Halloween DVD rotation. Put it in the party playlist every two or three years. It would be worth keeping in the house, like The Ring or What Lies Beneath, as a fond reminder of the first time you let it scare you. If you want to take your kids to see it… well, good luck with that. A week of nightmares never killed anyone, after all. But if you have a little one who’s recently conquered a bed-wetting problem, you might want to stay in and watch Ghostbusters instead.