Sometimes what seems dead has a way of being revived again over time. This could be the theme of James Watkins’ The Woman In Black, which does a hat trick of refurbishing the reputation of Hammer studios, providing a new take on a story told thrice before, and proving that Daniel Radcliffe’s career will survive the end of the Harry Potter franchise.
In particular, I’m enthused about the way it captures the tone, mood and energy of Hammer’s old British horror films. This is a stylish and classical ghost story that singlemindedly goes about the business of giving its audience the willies. Mission accomplished. Consider a scene where Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds excavate a sunken horse-carriage from a bog by moonlight. Delightfully creepy.
Watkins, who directed the chav horror Eden Lake, understands he’s tackling a work with much history and confidently gives his own spin. Considering the quality of the other adaptations, this is quite necessary.Susan Hill’s 1983 novel was a somewhat slight but engrossing gothic potboiler that influenced both an amazingly scary, Brechtian stage production (playing in London’s West End since 1987!) and a solid, unsettling BBC tv adaptation. Anyone familiar with those other iterations will be paying close attention here. Yes, much has changed, but almost all of it has done so to accommodate the cinematic dimensions of the tale.
The first thing one notices is the style, which drenches the movie in gothic excess and prepares us for the fearsome spectre that haunts the frozen moors around Eel Marsh House.Watkins opens with a disturbingly sedate prologue that makes childhood teatime seem like the most sinister practice on Earth. Then he’s off through drab, morose London streets and shadowy cramped parlors where we meet Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young man mourning his dead wife and raising their four-year old son Joseph (Misha Handley) while trying to keep his job as an attorney. Kipps is charged with a task no one else presumably wants; travel to the remote village of Crythin Gifford and look after the estate of the late Alice Dreblow. What he discovers when he arrives is not what he expected, although had Kipps the benefit of seeing horror films he wouldn’t be that shocked.
Crythin Gifford is the quintessential Hammer town, filled with a kind of shabby dread and spiritual dampness, the citizens hollow-eyed lurkers who peer out from greasy window panes and usher their children into the sancutary of rotting cottages when they see the attorney coming. Kipps needs to find Eel Marsh House, but no one will speak of it save for one reluctant carriage driver who takes him across the the treacherous bog to an island of sorts that holds the derelict mansion in it’s grim, mucky grasp. Inside the house there are dark secrets and a hair-raising architecture furnished with the most frightful mechanical toys this side of Blade Runner. Kipps learns through experience that it isn’t just the Marsh house that is haunted, but the bog, the village and the children of the townspeople. A violent curse lays heavy on the land, personified by the deep, drifiting mists and an obscure figure dressed in black.
Daniel Radcliffe comes off the Potter franchise ready to prove himself as Kipps, but he’s just a tad too young to properly convince as the father of a four year-old and he lacks the stoic reslove of someone like George C. Scott in The Changeling, who went up against otherworldly phantoms with a bluster that would shout-down a banshee. Still, he demonstrates a kind of tenacious charm that makes him perfect for a film where a plucky young man must suss out secrets and take action against dark forces. Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer assist Radcliffe in the drama department as a couple who lost their child when he was young, drowned at sea. McTeer’s character is an odd duck; she carries with her two small, pampered dogs who absorb the frustrated nurture that belongs to a son who she still communicates with, often by scrawling ominous warnings into the surfaces of the furniture. Hinds, for his part, is Radcliffe’s foil, his dour, Irish mug ready to disbelieve but fascinating to watch when it finally takes in the sinister work of the woman in the black.
The movie is scary. That is not likely to be debated but by the very reserved or stubborn. Watkins and his skilled team have created several levels of fright, beginning with the chilly and foreboding cinematography that renders Northern England as a perfectly suitable lair for devils, bogarts and shades. Then there’s the production design which is so insistent that the moment we see Eel Marsh House we know it doesn’t matter whether it’s haunted or not. Radcliffe could be reenacting the plot of Bachelor Party here and it would still be sufficiently unsettling. Of course there’s the woman and her bleak backstory, which offers the psychological thrills of a good nail-biter.
If you haven’t conceded to the creeps by then, there’s the heavy artillery; the god-forsaken sound design, so unnerving and constantly transforming that eventually one wishes this were a silent picture so that hell bound rocking-chair would just stop its arcane creaking. Doing away with the recent trend of shrieking violins to establish fear, Watkins opts instead for a more traditional score that ends up being relatively sparse and easily amplified, often retreating into the background in favor of more natural sound effects that gain menace when they appear unexpectedly or burst from outside the frame of the picture. Taking a queue from the wonderful stage play, Radcliffe hears—but does not see—the tragedy that occurred out on the bog. He’s standing in the mist listening to the phantasmal horses and trap sink down into the mire without ever seeing a thing.
The film isn’t perfect, eschewing the conclusions of the previous versions for a tidier ending that reflects that need in modern horror films for closure and righting the unfinished business of ghostly lurkers. With Radcliffe, there’s more than a few ironic and distracting facets of that final, pivotal scene in the train station. But leaving my hesitations about the finale aside, this is a solid and spooky horror film that is refreshing in its old-school approach and lack of tedious gore and torture. I’ll trade all the slashers in the universe for scenes like the one where Radcliffe shuffles through a darkened sitting-room, lantern in hand, unaware of the moldy, rotting bog-thing in the shadows behind him.