Movie Review: 'The Woman in Black'


Every serious fan of horror cinema should know at least a little something about Hammer Horror. One doesn't require a master's degree on the collected works of Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster to curl up with a great OLD British horror flick and appreciate how the genre had two great decades in the sun. There are countless resources for those who want to devour the films from a checklist, but to the young or the newcomers, I'd recommend the basics first: The Quatermass Experiment (1955), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). Then you can pick through the sequels, some of which are quite good, and you'll discover buried treasures like Twins of Evil (1971) and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). But that's not what we're here to discuss.

The topic at hand is the now-resurgent Hammer Horror studio, which was pretty darn quiet between the years of 1975 and 2009 -- but they were resurrected by partnering on Let Me In, producing new films like The Resident, Wake Wood, and their latest, The Woman in Black. For all intents and purposes, The Woman in Black probably counts as Hammer Horror's "big" comeback film, if only because The Woman in Black is based on a celebrated 1983 novel by Susan Hill that has been adapted for television and stage with  undeniable degrees of success. With all due respect to Let Me In, The Resident, and Wake Wood ... they simply don't have the pedigree that The Woman in Black does.

And it's not just the source material. Here we have a beloved horror studio adapting a widely-admired book ... and who is the star? Only Daniel Radcliffe, lead actor of the most popular film series of all time. That Mr. Radcliffe is a fine actor is not the question (he is), but rather this: can he shed the Harry Potter image and forge a fresh acting career of his own? Based only on what I've seen in The Woman in Black, the odds seem to be in Radcliffe's favor. With The Woman in Black he wisely chose a calm, quiet, sympathetic lead role in a film that keeps asking viewers to LOOK AWAY from the global superstar. Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps may be a docile and slightly bland character, but the actor still does a fine job with the role.

There are also some impressive names behind the camera. In charge of adapting Ms. Hill's novel into a new film is Jane Goldman, a name you'll recall from recent films like Kick-Ass, The Debt, and X-Men: First Class. In the director's chair is James Watkins, and since he's written or directed titles like Eden Lake, My Little Eye, and The Descent Part 2, it's safe to say that the horror fans know who he is by now. Basically my assertion is that the folks in charge of the "new" Hammer Horror went out and hired some damn solid locals. But does any of this translate to the screen?

Hell yes it does, provided that A) you're the sort who actually enjoys the "creepy mansion, tiptoeing down hallways, candles blown out, creepy noise upstairs, locked door, hidden secrets" sort of Gothic horror tale, or B) you've never actually seen one but are willing to spend 95 minutes with a horror flick that's not all about shocks and carnage. I love shocks and carnage, but this is an admirably old-fashioned ghost story, and while it IS scary / creepy / eerie, it's also well within the realm of family viewing. Provided your kids are at least 14 and like being scared by dark hallways and terrible bumps in the night.

The plot couldn't be simpler: Arthur Kipps is a single-father and widower who is in serious danger of losing his job as an associate lawyer. His current assignment is a big one: he must travel to the distant Eel Marsh House to put its affairs in order after its last surviving resident has died. The local villagers want nothing to do with Mr. Kipps, and a few of the more unpleasant folks are downright nasty. The only sliver of civility arrives in the form of a melancholy man called Mr. Daily (an excellent Ciaran Hinds), but Kipps is steadfastly intent on closing the mansion down, once and for all, before his little boy arrives from London in four days' time.

Unfortunately Eel Marsh House has one remaining resident whom nobody likes to talk about: she is, of course, "the woman in black." Whenever she appears, a local child dies. Kipps doesn't believe it, Daily knows something he's not telling, the locals are getting angrier by the minute ... and then there's Eel Marsh House. Wow. Say what you like about the film's simple structure or slow-burn presentation, but there's little denying that Watkins and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones didn't have a great time framing their central location with a palpable sense of quiet nastiness. If 60% of a haunted house movie is the house, then The Woman in Black is already batting a smooth 6 for 10.

Bolstered by an ominous Marco Beltrami score and almost single-mindedly obsessed on remaining an old-style ghost chiller amdist a horror landscape that doesn't seem all that interested in such movies, The Woman in Black is an admirable horror movie indeed. The world needs horror flicks that can be shown at family nights and slumber parties, and now we have a new one. If the younger folks take a liking to The Woman in Black and decide to dig up some of the older Hammer classics, well that's just a bonus, isn't it?