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Non-Review Review: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black is a stately, old-fashioned horror film – the kind of Victorian era ghost story that I honestly feared had vanished from the multiplex. James Watkins’ adaptation of Susie Hill’s cult 1983 horror novel revels in the classic horror conventions, complete with jump scares, a stylish atmosphere and a hyperactive orchestral string section. It’s very much a loving resurrection of the type of classy conventional scary movies that have been replaced by serial killer or found footage films. There are moments when the movie might stick a little bit too close to that classic formula, and it feels a little brisk in the middle, but it’s a hugely enjoyable and thrilling experience.

Potter at the gates at dawn?

The Woman in Black is essentially a gothic horror story, so you know what you’re going to get going into it. The rules of these old ghost stories are in full effect. There’s an isolated estate, literally cut off from a village that doesn’t seem to take kindly to outsiders. There’s an angry and vengeful spectre looking for some measure of peace. There’s a flickering candle that can light an entire room at one moment and barely illuminate Daniel Radcliffe’s stubble the next. There’s something moving in the background – no, the mirror! – oh wait, it’s just a rocking chair. Or is it? Is that a small child’s hand-print on the wall there?

In a way, this feels almost like the kind of movie I was expecting from Hammer, back when it was announced that the company would be resurrecting itself from the grave like an unholy creature of the night. A movie with an abundance of atmosphere, and one that offered an old-fashioned alternative to the gore and graphic violence that seems to populate modern horror films. That’s not to complain about Let Me In or The Wake Wood (and to completely ignore The Resident), but The Woman in Black feels like a very serious attempt to tell an old-style ghost story with modern production values.

Burying the hachet?

Indeed, Daniel Radcliffe feels strangely like the logical successor to Hammer’s iconic leading men. He’s tall and gangly here, with pale skin like a young Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing – cutting quite a figure in his Victorian waistcoat. It even looks like Radcliffe fashioned some respectable sideburns in affectionate homage to his distinguished predecessors. The movie seems very much a smart pick for the young actor, trying to move away from the image of the boy wizard without losing any of his strengths. Hammer Horror is about as far as you can move away from Harry Potter, while still playing to Radcliffe’s core attributes: his almost quaint British charm and the sophistication seemingly beyond his years.

The movie doesn’t really ask too much of any of its actors, but Radcliffe proves himself a good sport. It takes a lot to convince us to see Radcliffe as a fully-grown family man, let alone one with a four-year old son, and the stubble on his chin is a nice start. Still, through Radcliffe’s performance and the film’s brutal efficiency, it’s a matter of minutes before we accept Radcliffe as the widower lawyer visiting a remote part of the country to tidy up in the wake of an old widow’s death.

If you like old-fashioned horrors, it's a scream...

The movie is fairly predictable, but I think that’s part of the charm and appeal – it’s what I quite liked. The movie doesn’t rejoice in gratuitous gore or tasteless violence. Nobody has their innards spilled out and there aren’t any psychopaths to be found. There is a little blood on display, but it isn’t splattered around liberally to trigger a sense of revulsion. Instead, Watkins uses the stark red on pale skin to create an eerie and macabre contrast. Jump scares and sudden sharp music can be deft tools if deployed effectively, and I think Woman in Black uses them far better than most. However, it’s the more subtle sequences that really work – the creaking doors, the blurred figures in the background and slightest hint of movement and shadow.

It’s fascinating how the three successful Hammer productions of recent years – this, Wake Wood and Let Me In – have all focused on the mortality of children. I think there’s something quite powerful there, but also something quite timeless. It’s worth noting that the earlier Hammer films, like The Nanny, dealt with similar themes. Here we’re presented with an entire community fixated on the notion of children dying before their parents, and how powerful that can be.

Gonna take you to the island...

Some of the creepiest moments in the film have little to do with the eponymous ghost, but more to do with how the village has adapted to its particular problems. There are tombs and mausoleums erected to house the bones of the deceased, some are kept under lock-and-key, while some parents turn their lives into living monuments to lost youth. Some of the more touching moments in the film see our protagonist befriending the wealthiest family in the district, and observing how they’ve been unable to get past that phenomenal loss. It isn’t developed quite as well as it could be, but Jane Goldman’s script gives the move a solid emotional core to base its scares around.

There are flaws, to be fair. These sorts of conventional scares aren’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, despite the skill with which they are deployed. The film suffers a bit in the middle, as it struggles to get from the unsettling set-up to the satisfying pay-off. It feels like the movie has only reallybegun, as our lead gets his first true taste of terror, before the film is suddenly wrapping up once again. I suppose, though, it’s much better than drawing out the movie, or lingering too long on pointless details. It’s probably better to have this tightly-constructed ghost story than a more drawn-out and less concentrate spookfest.

Holding a candle to the greats...

Still, I really enjoyed it. I think this is the kind of film that would make solid Halloween viewing on a dark night, with the volume turn way up and the lights turned off completely. It’s a throwback to the kind of horror you didn’t think that they made anymore, and I’m glad that they made an exception to produce this.

7 Responses

  1. I can’t wait to see this film. Thanks for the post!

  2. Not especially original and not tremendously scary, but there are a few pleasurable jolts of fear, some shiver-down-your-spine moodiness and it doesn’t overstay its welcome for too long. Nice write-up Darren.

    • I don’t know, i quite liked its old-school jump-scale tactics, to be honest. I can’t wait to crack it open at home with the surround sound way up.

  3. this is a complaint,i think and my family members that this film should be a over 18! 12A,seriously? or even a 15. but 12A is to young. And i also think you made it to much like the old version. It’s also cruel and sick that they made a film about Kids dying because a woman lost her son. If that happened to you,you wouldn’t want anyone else to experience it, for sure? i rate this film a 5 out of 10.

    • That’s a little harsh. Surely then any movie with any fictional character dying should be off limits because they might have fictional relatives?

    • You can’t say that, because if it does upset people who have dead children then they should just not watch it opposed to stopping everyone else from watching it. Besides, no one would make that connection even if it related to them. Personally I thought the movie was great but it should have been a 15 purely due to the “grim” topics the film portrayed.

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