‘The Woman in Black’ is based on Susan Hill’s much-loved novel, which has also been adapted as a very successful London stage play by Stephen Mallatratt and has now been brought to the big screen by the iconic British film company ‘Hammer ‘. Chosen as the movie with which to herald the revival of their studios and add to their substantial body of work in the Gothic horror genre. Though the book was written in 1983, it is a classic tale of vengeance from beyond the grave in the tradition of M.R James, Le Fanu, Henry James, Dickens or du Maurier – in other words, it has a decent narrative and is soaked in atmospheric spookiness.
The movie version wilfully and refreshingly bucks all of the horror trends of the past decade. Here there is no ‘found footage’ or torture-porn, nor any partially-clothed starlets getting imaginatively butchered. It is not adapted from a movie the Japanese or Koreans did first (and better) it isn’t a remake – nor is it in 3D! There isn’t a single moody, sparkling vampire or improbably limber zombie chasing its lunch. It is simply an homage to the Victorian ghost story – classically structured and set in the traditional location – a crumbling and deserted mansion. There is isolation, plenty of eerie mist, strange sounds in the night and some seriously creepy toys. All the essential ingredients, in fact, of the classic Gothic horror film.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer emotionally devastated by grief at the death of his wife in childbirth. Arthur is given an assignment to salvage his neglected legal career, which entails heading off to a remote village to handle the legal paperwork of the deceased owner of isolated Eel Marsh House and its estate, situated across desolate, misty marshlands and separated from the mainland by the daily tides. Leaving his young son with the nanny, Arthur takes a series of trains to get to the secluded village. Despite ominous looks and warnings from the local townsfolk which serve only to confuse him, he goes over to the house – where ‘bad things happen’. These lead us into a story relating to dead children and their relationship to the eponymous Woman in Black.
Most of the movie is a one-man show. Radcliffe’s character begins the movie melancholy and becomes increasingly mystified as he encounters the spirit that inhabits the house. Radcliffe is making a good attempt at finding a more varied career after growing up on screen in public as Harry Potter, but this role is not necessarily a huge stretch for him, as probably no actor in the history of cinema has been better prepared for a movie spent constantly reacting to invisible forces. The result is that Radcliffe gives a performance that is assertive, but not showcasing any new sides to his talent. His transformation from sorrow to terror is not as striking as it might be, but the film does show that he’s able to hold the screen alone. There is a good, solid supporting cast. Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds grasping the opportunity to be more animated than Radcliffe in playing the village’s wealthiest and most benevolent residents.
Although horror movie lovers have seen the conventional shocks and scares many times before, James Watkins’s exuberant direction, Jon Harris’s editing and Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack delivers them with such zest, one can only admire their enthusiasm (and be reminded of the early works of Mario Bava). I suspect though, that perhaps Jane Goldman’s strengths as a screenwriter for the fast-paced action of ‘X-Men First Class’ and ‘Kick-Ass’ did not prepare her for handling the pacing of a slow-burn, build-up of terror in the Gothic horror genre. I feel it would have been advisable to reveal the malevolence of the ghost sooner in the story, so that we were fearful for the protagonist rather than just observing his reactions to the haunting. Ms. Goldman has also changed the emphasis of the book in her screenplay, since Kipps is not Susan Hill’s happily married man looking forward to fatherhood, but a widower whose wife has died while giving him a beautiful son. This makes him disturbed and unsettled before he even enters the ghost house. Perhaps this was meant to increase our emotional involvement with the character of Kipps, but I’m not sure that watching a happy man looking forward to his future, and observing his sanity and stability being systematically eroded by forces he cannot comprehend or whose intentions he does not understand would not have been even more effective, and more of a challenge for the actor, but maybe that’s just me? There is also a queasily ‘feel-good’ ending. This is quite different from the grimness of the book and diminished the shock of just how unforgiving and obsessed this ghostly presence actually is. It should be noted, that if a ghost story is to be involving, it is important to convey the tragedy, hatred or madness of the ghost itself. Ghosts were people once, after all, and they potentially have as many stories to tell as a writer cares to give them. It is this feature which distinguishes them from our more rigidly defined monsters, such as Vampires, Werewolves or Zombies.
The film has a 12A rating in the UK (one suspects in order to allow Mr Radcliffe’s younger fan base access to his latest venture) and this, of course, must have limited the scope of the potential scares.
In Stephen King’s fascinating book, ‘Danse Macabre’ a nonfiction outlining his take on the art of the Horror genre, he delineates three levels: terror, horror and revulsion. He states that terror is the ‘finest element’ – the suspenseful moment before the actual monster is revealed – the horror occurs when we finally see the monster, but he equates revulsion with the gag reflex, a level which he considers as merely a cheap thrill. With films such as ‘Human Centipede’, ‘Hostel’ ‘Saw –whatever-number-it –is –now’ and other visceral, gorefest films pushing the boundaries of revulsion, fans of the classic horror will welcome ‘The Woman in Black’. Certainly it has been doing well at the box office, so far. It is recognizably a ‘British’ movie, as all Hammer Horror movies were, and I was pleased to see that some of the old Hammer hallmarks are still present. Perhaps it may be soon be the time for Kate Bush to re-release that ‘Hammer Horror’ tribute song?
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Photos courtesy of IMDB