“The Woman In Black” takes place near the end of the Victorian era and tells the story of a man who is assigned to take care of business at a creepy estate that may be haunted by some kind of spectral presence. The road leading up to the estate is narrow, usually empty, and is hardly an inch away from being submerged in the surrounding marshland. But while watching this film, something funny occurred to me: most protagonists in horror movies can handle themselves remarkably well when faced with impending peril. If I started hearing footsteps in that locked room upstairs or saw a cadaverous woman standing erect outside my window like Michael Myers, there is no way in hell that I would muster up the courage to see what all the commotion was about.
Daniel Radcliffe tries to break free of his “Harry Potter” niche as he stars in this serviceable horror movie based on Susan Hill’s novel, which also inspired a stage play and a television film adaptation. I heard through the grapevine that Radcliffe’s attachment to the project alone was able to pique the interests of several younger Potter aficionados, send them running scared out of the theater and prompt a few of their angry mothers to post all over forum boards about why the film isn’t suitable for kids. I’m shaking my head at this. Does it say anywhere on the poster that the full title is “Harry Potter and the Woman in Black?” No. The logic here is a complete joke. That’s like a bunch of eight-year-old kids who line up to see “Sweeney Todd” on the grounds that it features a face-off between Captain Jack Sparrow and Severus Snape.
Radcliffe plays not “the boy who lived come to die” this time, but is instead cast as a young lawyer and father named Arthur Kipps. Arthur is rapt in an extended mourning period following the tragic death of his wife, who passed away while giving birth. At four-years-old, their offspring Joseph (Misha Handley) is beginning to pick up on his father’s grief; his crude crayon drawings of Arthur always depict a man with a frowning face and a woman situated peacefully in the clouds above. Radcliffe (twenty-two years old as of this review) in a role that requires him to play father to a young child strikes me as jumping the gun just a little prematurely. Though I think he has less facial stubble here than he had in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” Just saying.
Experiencing tough financial troubles and heightening the risk of unemployment for himself, this lawyer from London is stuck with the task of traveling to the lavish estate yuckily titled Eel Marsh. This place was once occupied and owned by Alice Drablow, her husband, son and sister. After a troubled life, the woman finally passed away not long ago and Arthur is there to rummage through her legal papers and clear up all of her leftover affairs.
Arthur does not receive much of a warm welcome upon arriving in the faraway town near Eel Marsh. Just about everybody stares at him blankly as if he is Dom Cobb infiltrating somebody else’s dream. Fortunately, one of the townspeople Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) thrusts himself forward by cordially offering Arthur an amiable friendship, a hot meal on his first night in town and transportation to the mansion in this newfangled contraption called an “aw-to-mo-beel,” I think it was. His wife Elizabeth (Janet McTeer), however, is considerably more off-kilter; she is sent into hysteria whenever a conversation switches to the topic of children.
Not only are the people in this town weird and unreceptive, but the children all have a disturbing inclination toward suicide. The first scene in the film shows three little girls that abruptly stop playing with their dolls to jump out the second-story window of their house in unison. The townspeople fear that the culprit provoking all of these deaths is a mysterious woman in a black dress. Legend has it that she kills children out of revenge for her own son’s demise. So, pretty much a Victorian age female version of Freddy Krueger…sort of.
The star here is neither Radcliffe, nor is it Hinds, nor is it even the story or script. Instead, what makes “The Woman In Black” pretty enjoyable as an above-average horror movie is its refreshing Gothic atmosphere. The film isn’t so much scary or terrifying as it is unsettling and effectively chilling; a prolonged demonstration of that sense of paranoia you get when you’re trying to sleep but your mind decides to play tricks on you. You think you hear noises coming from all over the place, or you see a shadow standing in the corner that looks like a person. I love the kind of fear that makes you question your own judgment.
The mansion is one of those decrepit buildings with the architecture and artwork that immediately reminds you of haunted houses, like the one in “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark.” The claustrophobic camerawork gives both the viewer and the protagonist limited perspective, the haunting imagery is resonant, and the sound editing proficiently uses dead silence to its advantage (though a few too many unnecessary blasts of orchestra music for my tastes). Included somewhere in the middle is a long stretch which begins with Arthur falling asleep in a chair, ends with him scared wide awake, and is filled with a whole lot of ghastly disturbances that happen in nearly every room of the mansion. The sequence is twenty minutes of nonstop anxiety.
The director James Watkins previously wrote the script and directed the highly underrated British horror film “Eden Lake” in which a couple played by Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender were mercilessly tortured and maimed by a bunch of sadistic teenagers while on their romantic vacation. Watkins is working with considerably different material this time around, both in content and tone. “Eden Lake” is exceedingly bloody, gruesome and visceral, while this film is brooding and plays more with perception and images. However, “Eden Lake” and “The Woman In Black” share common ground in that they take conventional horror ideas, run with them and establish a final product that is much better than it probably ought to be.