Have we really gone so far in our movie loving culture where we can no longer appreciate a good old-fashioned ghost story?
James Watkins’ The Woman In Black is the first theatrical film from Hammer Film Productions since their 2010 flop Let Me In. Almost as if the legendary studio had taken a dip in the fountain of youth, The Woman in Black shows that the once masters of horror cinema still have what it takes to make a fun, scary ghost story. Is the movie a nuanced exploration of the human condition? A groundbreaking revisionist take on a stagnate genre? A masterpiece hidden underneath a floating bed cloth with two eyeholes cut out? No — but as far as cinematic tributes to a bygone era of horror go, The Woman In Black has what it takes to make for a fun night out at the movies.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a very young father who has been left a widower following his wife’s death. Low on cash and desperate to provide for his young son, Arthur agrees to take a job that will send him away from home for a week in order to settle the legal affairs of a recently deceased woman.
It is not long after arriving in town that Arthur realizes something is rotten — and it’s not just the villagers’ attitude towards him. In the small village where Arthur must do his work, children have a nasty habit of taking their lives. The locals blame a mysterious phantom — a woman in black — who haunts the estate Arthur is currently working from. By disturbing the sprit, Arthur has inevitably awoken a very pissed off ghost and the village’s pint-sized population are all in danger.
The Woman in Black is very much a haunted house movie. As Arthur combs through years of paperwork — plenty of it offering clues to the woman in black’s origins — Watkins brings out the whole shebang when it comes to frights. From jump scares involving noise to blink and you’ll miss it glimpses at something nasty in the shadows, Watkins’ approach to directing is not too dissimilar to a haunted carnival ride designer. He strategically sprinkles in enough scares throughout the film to keep the audiences on alert without pounding them in the head with the fact his movie is supposed to be scary. Nothing is more annoying than a filmmaker who tries to hard to elicit a scream. Watkins, while certainly not nuanced in his approach, knows how hard to push against the nape of audiences’ neck with his film’s creep factor without pissing them off.
From mud children to the creepiest collection of children’s toys ever assembled under one roof, The Woman in Black is like the golden oldies station on the radio when it comes to horror movies. Audiences will get a good selection of some of their favorite scares and — like listening to comforting radio songs — audiences will be reminded of a simpler time when they were children and a branch rustling outside a window could send them into histrionics.
Radcliffe is rather subdued in the film. Stoic faced and very much the straight man to the film’s menagerie of spooky sounds. As he seeks a way to break the curse, he is given the thankless role of keeping the movie grounded in some semblance of emotional resonance. The movie’s plot is light and fluffy enough that without Radcliffe’s dramatic weight, it might just float off into the heavens.
As a pair of friendly locals, Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer are fantastic in the film. They are there to serve the story but they do it in a very efficient manor — offering whatever is necessary to move the plot forward be it expositional power lifting, comedic relief or deus ex machina.
The Woman in Black is an introductory level horror film for the young audience members who grew up with Harry Potter films. The movie is exactly the type of movie that Hammer once made for horror fans in the ’50s and ‘60s and now its hitting that same sweet spot for young audiences today. And, best of all, it’s doing it without resorting to unnecessarily violent scenes or gratuitous sex — pretty ironic considering Hammer’s past as a studio that once pushed the boundaries of what horror movies could get away with. The world may have changed and movie studios with it but one thing that remains constant is an audience’s need for a good scare.
Director: James Watkins
Notable Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Sophie Stuckey, Liz White and Alisha Khasanova
Writer(s): Jane Goldman