James Watkins’ “The Woman in Black” is willfully out-of-step with all of the horror trends of the past decade.
It isn’t found footage or torture porn or adapted from something the Japanese or Koreans did first. It isn’t in 3D or a reboot, nor is it proliferated with romantic vampires or fast-moving zombies. No sexy stars from The CW get butchered in half-clothed ways and no former film and TV icons are using their ironic on-screen deaths for career resurrection. You might say that “The Woman in Black” is in a similar vein to the 2001 smash “The Others,” but it isn’t a narrative built entirely around a Shyamalanian twist ending.
“The Woman in Black” is old-fashioned and proudly so. You can think of it as Hammer meets Masterpiece Theater, but it’s really just a classically structured Victorian ghost story equipped with a couple decent scares, some spooky atmosphere and a very reasonable 96-minute running time.
Attempts to find characterization, subtext or real surprises in “The Woman in Black” probably won’t amount to anything, but accepting it as the creepy, decently made exercise that it is ought to yield some minor frights.
Full review after the break…
Oh and did I mention that “The Woman in Black” stars Harry Potter?
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer still emotionally wrecked by the death of his wife in childbirth. Arthur is given a last-chance assignment to salvage his career by heading off to a remote village to handle paperwork surrounding the estate of the wealthy owner of an estate separated from the mainland by the daily tides. Leaving his young son with the governess, Arthur hops on a series of trains and heads into the heart of darkness.
“The Woman in Black” is based on Susan Hill’s novel, which was adapted as a very successful London stage play by Stephen Mallatratt and has been brought to the big screen by Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”). There really isn’t much by way of story here. Arthur gets to the village and everybody is morose and looking at him funny and warning him not to go to Eel Marsh House. He does. Bad things happen. Those bad things relate to dead children and to the eponymous woman in black.
Sad dude. Haunted house. Ghost kids. Curse.
I can’t say for sure what Goldman trimmed from the book and what the play had already trimmed from the book, but I’ll say this: Nothing remaining in the movie feels in any way superfluous and nothing absent feels like a great loss. [Sure, I guess I might have maybe wanted one more plot point to justify anything that Arthur is doing in the house on a professional basis, but that wouldn’t have to be exposition, just the character looking at an estate record or 1920s-style spreadsheet instead of old pictures.]
This was a savvy choice on Radcliffe’s part for his first real post-Potter star vehicle. He’s playing a grown-up, a professional man with a kid, so he’s clearly making the “I’m not a British schoolboy anymore” statement. But, on the other hand, he spends no time at all in that professional environment and virtually no time with his son, so he’s able to postpone those follow-up questions of how convincingly he’s not playing a British schoolboy. And while it’s a movie he carries entirely on his own back — more than half of the movie is a one-man show — it’s not a huge stretch. Radcliffe’s character begins the movie depressed and although he becomes more “terrified” than “melancholy,” I defy anybody to tell the difference. Also, it’s possible that no actor in the history of cinema has been better prepared for a movie spent constantly reacting to invisible or unseen forces than a twentysomething thespian reared on eight “Harry Potter” movies. The result is that Radcliffe gives a performance that’s both one-note, but also completely assertive, not showcasing new sides of his talent, but proving that he’s able to hold the screen without assistance from Hermione, Dumbledore or Dobby.
Radcliffe’s most prominent co-star is another “Harry Potter” veteran, Ciaran Hinds, though how many viewers even recognized that he played Aberforth Dumbledore is a matter of some question. Hinds is actually very fine here, getting to be more animated than Radcliffe in playing the town’s wealthiest resident. Also providing a couple minutes of quirky energy is two-time Oscar nominee Janet McTeer, source of the movie’s only [bittersweet] humor.
Anyway, it’s Radcliffe’s movie and his face on the poster, but many will come away from “The Woman in Black” feeling that director James Watkins deserves at least equal billing, for better or for worse.
Watkins has fully embraced the idea that he’s making a haunted house movie with very British trappings and this is a genre exercise, rather than an exercise in subverting the genre. This isn’t some cooler-than-thou “Scooby-Doo”-style story of skepticism and cheeky unmaskings. In this genre’s version of Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is the most supernatural explanation. When you hear rattling in the attic, think ghosts, don’t think Old Man Caruthers trying to scare off new renters to sell the land to an amusement park.
If a character goes out into a fog bank, you can set your clock by when the spectral figure will come floating. If a character glances out a window, you can set you clock by the figure he sees in the distance and by the shot-reverse-shot in which that figure will vanish. If a character walks through a door and turns slightly to the left, you know something’s going to be behind him to his right. If the movie and ambient sound get loud and then cut out entirely, you can guarantee a scream or a banging. Woe-betide any character looking under a bed or glancing through a peephole. And mirrors! Don’t get me started on mirrors or reflections in windows. Doors will lock behind you. Windows will slam suddenly. And watch the back of every single shot, because you never know when something might move, when somebody might emerge.
There’s cheapness and ease to a lot of those horror conventions, but the question is always whether they’ll feel exploitative when they’re happening. Rather than winking at the audience, Watkins, editor Jon Harris and particularly composer Marco Beltrami play the shock-scares like viewers have never seen them before and the earnestness is refreshing. Certainly the apparently sheltered teenage girls at the radio-sponsored screening I attended thought that the scares delivered, or else they left me partially deaf for fun. It’s almost like watching a classic multi-camera sitcom, perhaps an old James L. Brooks or Norman Lear show, where you might feel like the laughs are old-fashioned, but you also appreciate the architecture of a good set-up/punchline script.
And speaking of architecture, production designer Kave Quinn probably deserves at least co-star billing with Watkins and Radcliffe for making Eel Marsh House a properly booby-trapped setting for this mayhem. Eel Marsh House is littered with such an astounding array of creepy toys and bric a brac — particularly kudos for the wide assortment of demented monkey gewgaws — that no sane person would ever spend more than five minutes in the place alone, but sanity (or “common sense,” really) isn’t in surplus. The house itself, as well as the perpetually misty village and the isolating tidal road to Eel Marsh are all well captured by cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones, a Guy Ritchie veteran who simultaneous avoids the most muted of Masterpiece Theater palettes and a certain Hammer-homage archness. Again, “The Woman in Black” doesn’t intend to be an “homage,” because that would imply self-awareness and there’s none of that here.
This review will end up giving “The Woman in Black” a B-minus grade, but it’s an enthusiastic B-minus, as such things go. I like the anachronistic simplicity of Watkins and Goldman’s approach. “The Woman in Black” doesn’t try to raise the ante with its gore or astound you with its special effects. It doesn’t try to shake up your perception of the supernatural and you’re not going to walk out with your mind blown by what transpired. It’s not especially original and it’s not tremendously scary, but there are a few pleasurable jolts of fear, some shiver-down-your-spine moodiness and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Even if that isn’t good enough for your $12+ dollars at the multiplex, it’ll definitely be good enough for a chilly fall night next Halloween.
“The Woman in Black” is now in theaters.