The Woman in Black Review
I know, I know … what took me so long to get this review out? The film has been on release for a while now, but even someone who is as devout a horror fan as me, and particularly a Hammer Horror fan at that, can sometimes fall behind. And besides, allowing the Potterites to have their time with Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-wizard cinematic role before properly assessing how good this second filmic adaptation of Susan Hill’s acclaimed 1983 ghost story really is, was probably a good thing. The first time I saw this version, the cinema was filled with kids and I think I spent more time studying how they reacted to it than watching the film properly, myself.
Cut by around six seconds to grant it a 12a certificate and then releasing it at Half Term does inevitably smack of pure commercial gain over original thematic and artistic integrity, and I do not advocate film censorship at all, especially not for reasons such as this … and yet, looking at the bigger picture, I would like to temper this with two interesting ideas before we dissect the film itself.
Firstly, this manoeuvre has certainly paid dividends at the box office. Hammer, themselves, cite The Woman in Black as being the most successful British horror movie in over twenty years. Notoriety has indeed bled into popularity and the huge success that the newly resurrected studio’s fourth feature production has gained now means that Hammer are a true force to be reckoned with. The profits made here have opened the bloodgates for more original productions to come along, plus helping to nudge the return to old favourites like Frankenstein and Dracula to a more feasible status, along with aiding immeasurably the restoration and release on Blu-ray of their formidable back-catalogue of classic titles. This, to my mind, cannot be a bad thing.
And, secondly, there is now a new generation who have had their first taste of what, to them, constitutes a real horror film, unlike the pop trendy charades such as Twilight and Red Riding Hood. This one may not be as gory or as violent as some of the things they may have caught up with on disc, but it is very probably far scarier and more psychologically affecting than the majority of offerings that they have been able to sit through. And this is one that they were able to catch on the big screen, in a darkened theatre and with the full audience experience. I, myself, was very lucky (at least I think I was) in that I was able to view lots of now classic horror movies on the big screen at a very young age … and for nothing as well during the late seventies and early eighties, and this shaped the way that I understood and appreciated the genre. Now, I am not placing James Watkin’s remarkably intense adaptation of this highly revered ghost yarn alongside such dubious delights as The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween or Suspiria, but the fact is that you never forget your first cinematic scream – and for a great many young cinemagoers (and I know this for certain because I heard quite a few of them screaming in the cinema besides my own son and his friend who yelped with assured spasms on both occasions we sat through it) The Woman in Black was the one to provide such a life-changing catharsis. Thus, there might now be a swing-shift in younger attitudes towards more serious genre material instead of all those inane and superficial mock-horrors.
Well, we can hope, can’t we?
Young Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is struggling to keep his job as a London solicitor. He’s been having a rough time lately, the efforts of looking after a four old son weighing heavily upon the guilt that he already feels at losing his wife during the birth of the child. With a typically starched Victorian lack of compassion, his employer (John Allam) insists that he head off the north eastern coastal village of Crythin Gifford to see to the affairs of the late Mrs. Drablow in a last chance to prove his worth to the firm. He is to find the paperwork in the old and shunned Eel Marsh House, a fabulous gothic monstrosity that perches on its own secluded islet, separated from the mainland by the Nine Lives Causeway, a treacherous path that is submerged by the tides twice a day. Finding nothing but animosity in the village, a place that seems to tremble in the shadow of some never forgotten, but never spoken of atrocity, Arthur elects to stay in the house to finish the job in time to meet his son, and the boy’s nanny, in a couple of day’s time so that they enjoy a well-earned holiday in the country. But no sooner has he set foot in the old mansion than something seems to stir, something that is disturbed at his presence and keen to commence some terrible devilry. For Eel Marsh House harbours a dreadful past, a heritage that has blighted the next generation of the village, smiting down its children in horrific circumstances. And as Arthur slowly uncovers the awful truth of the Woman in Black, who haunts the place, the evil spectre moves against him … and more young and innocent lives are placed in dire peril.
Will he be able to solve the mystery of the Woman in Black? And can he right a desperate wrong and put to rest the veritable curse that afflicts Crythin Grifford before his son arrives in this godforsaken place?
But as the mists roll in and the shades of the dead walk the halls of Eel Marsh House, he may find that evil never forgives.
James Watkins was the man who helmed the shockingly bravura modern horror yarn, Eden Lake, making a survivalist heroine out of Kelly Reilly and making, um, mincemeat out of Michael Fassbender in the process. This is a different kettle of eels altogether, but no less intense. Some would argue that Jane Goldman’s screenplay just plays into his more moody and visual vogue – there is remarkably little dialogue and much of the film revolves Radcliffe’s Frodo-like eyes peering into dark corners and waiting for things to jump out at him – but this is precisely what we want from an experience that was galvanising in prose, electrifying as a stage-show (all lights and shadows and freakish sound-effects) and surprisingly scary as a TV movie back in 1989. Goldman (Mrs Jonathan Ross) has turned out some great screenplays in the past – Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class – and they all seem to be adaptations of someone else’s work, or just an extension of another’s creation in the case of X-Men, and this is hardly a stretch for her talents. Whilst she has certainly deviated from Hill’s original tale, which was adapted by the great Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale for Herbert Wise’s TV version, what may seem to some to be a fundamental alteration actually translates very well to this telling. There have also been complaints about the eventual denouement that Goldman polishes but, once again, I find this to be perfectly fitting … and even quite moving. The film now has a symmetry that feels appropriately elegant.
But, I will have to concede that there is an undeniable problem with Daniel Radcliffe playing the haunted Arthur Kipps. It is not his performance you understand, which I like a lot, but it is that he is clearly too young for the role. I know that it is physically possible for him to have a four year old son, and also that boys were considered professional “men” at a more tender age back then, but there is something unavoidably too youthful about him that betrays the whiskerage that adorns his bleach-white visage and the stares death in the face look that brilliantly dances in his eyes. His diminutive size, perhaps – a mere urchin when seen next Ciaran Hinds as the one sympathetic local, Daily? Or more likely it is that cherubic voice that speaks with so little tangible experience. You see him handed a glass of brandy and, well, it just doesn’t look right when he raises it to his lips. You hear him speak soothingly to a son, Joseph (Misha Handley, who is actually Radcliffe’s real-life godson), who begs him not to go away, and his voice sounds too weak and too timid to have borne a child through such dire times. But be this as it may, Radcliffe gets my seal of approval for being able to convey a desperately morose character who finds the strength to make unravelling this haunting a personal crusade of redemption.
Inevitably, there is a huge obstacle that Radcliffe has to surmount – and that is bloody Harry Potter, the smothering cloak of which will haunt him for some time to come. But the thing is … for my money he does surmount it. A lot of people find him wooden, especially here away from the comfort zone of Hogworts, but I don’t. I was struck by his performance as the tormented and dogged Kipps. There is a vaguely Ichabod Crane demeanour to this unwelcome stranger in a strange land, and The Boy Who Lived moves through this nightmare of shadow and pain with a compelling sadness that I find quite affecting. Once the bad things start to happen, he may tremble and freeze, but only for a second or so. Arthur somehow finds the courage to search the house, to unlock the doors to forbidden rooms, to piece together connection between the spate of child deaths that have begun again since his arrival and to confront the spectre of evil head-on. For my money, Radcliffe rises to the grim challenge quite commendably.
But regardless of who plays the naïve outsider who typically ignores all the advice from the locals, The Woman In Black has always been about fear. Sheer, marrow-chilling fear.
And the film is definitely a sphincter-tingler. Make no mistake.
I’m no teeny-squealer. I’ve been addicted to horror films since the age of about six when I first saw Jaws and my viewing diet is comprised of around seventy percent chills and gut-spills, so I don’t spook easily. I can see the mechanics of the stinger and the laborious set-up of shock twists from a mile away, and I can often find myself yawning through the majority of spoon-fed suspense. But I have to say that The Woman in Black not only made me jump good and proper twice but that it created in me a genuine sense of unease and dread that even the most acclaimed J-horror offering has failed to do. There is menace here … in the very fabric of the film. And what makes this succeed is that it takes itself seriously and never winks at the audience. This is a dark and troubling tale. Kids die … and they die horribly. What small censor-cuts there are – a human flambé, a swift and bone-crunching hanging – do nothing to alleviate the deep-seated intensity of the pain and suffering on display. The image of a young girl spitting up gouts of dark blood is a wrenching one, and it is possible that it is the adults in the audience who suffer the most at such sights.
The stunning middle stretch pits Arthur, alone in the house, against the machinations of the vengeful spirit. The best bits of Halloween and both the first two Evil Dead films have the central protagonist investigating a spooky, shadow-filled and certainly dangerous environment in which literally anything can happen. As Arthur begins his unnerving study of the accounts and the financial papers of the deceased occupants, his haunting really begins. Watkins uses the one main upstairs corridor to great effect. Arthur is forever compelled to climb those stairs and investigate a series of lonely, but memory filled rooms. Victorian toys – chattering, cymbal-clashing monkeys, music boxes and little merry-go-rounds – take on a palpable malevolence of subverted innocence. The image of the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear evil, speak no evil – almost becomes a metaphor for the backstory of a child seemingly left to die, and certainly becomes the unwhispered anthem that binds the scared community together. The creaking of a rocking-chair – aye, that old favourite piece of possessed furniture (see also ‘Salem’s Lot, Evil Dead II, the 1989 version of Woman in Black and, most petrifying of all, the one seen in the old dark tower from the most infamous episode of TV’s Armchair Thriller!) – makes for a seriously hair-raising set-piece. Watkins doesn’t overplay the visual shenanigans. He craftily swaps camera angles for a split-second to reveal something that only we can see, or he allows an almost subliminal materialisation of the titular fiend to spike the image like a shard of ice suddenly pressed against the retina. There’s nothing unique about of the ghostly goings-on. We have definitely seen them all before … but this doesn’t mean that they don’t still have the power to unhinge. When the shocks come, they pack a wallop. An effigy hauling itself out of the quagmire outside during a rainstorm and stomping towards the house as Arthur looks on is very reminiscent of Trick r Treat, but Watkins then has tricks us and Arthur as, after an investigation outside reveals that there is nobody there, a trail of muddy footprints traipses through the house behind him. And the treats keep on coming. The lights going out, one by one, on the landing. A face at the window. An indistinct figure at the far edge of our vision. It’s a ghost-train … and it’s a ride well worth taking.
The image of Arthur, bedecked in traditional gothic fashions of billowing-sleeved white shirt, dark waistcoat, cadaverous skin and implacable, cold terror, creeping around a shivery old mansion, axe in hand, is a wonderful one. I’m even tempted to believe, and sort of hope, actually, that we get to see Daniel Radcliffe in more gothic Hammer movies. He's actually quite scary, himself, with those bushy wolfman eyebrows! He could even grow to become a neo-interpretation of Peter Cushing, stalking and staking his way through another series of films pitching him against the supernatural and the unearthly. Many don’t rate him as I’ve said, but I disagree. He will never be an action hero, but he can project a certain vulnerability and a humanity that makes him ideal for walking that curious limbo-land between life and death, and horror could well become his new home. There is a level of maturity here that only that voice threatens to scupper.
I mentioned J-Horror a bit earlier and it is worth mentioning that this film owes a visual nod to the likes of Ringu, The Grudge and Dark Water for that now time-honoured image of a spectral female with bedraggled black hair materialising with demonic verve from all corners of the frame. It is tempting, of course, to say that Hill’s story was around first … but this is not the case at all. Supernatural raven-headed hell-hags have figured in Japanese and Chinese ghost stories for hundreds of years, and their cinematic equivalent can be found back in the likes of Onibaba, Kwaidan and Kuroneko amongst many others. In the TV version, she looked like the grotesque ghost of a bygone English lady. Here, she does appear to have taken notes from her oriental cousins.
Although the style of the storytelling and the actual plot itself is not something that immediately recalls the halcyon days of heaving cleavages and Kensington Gore, the look and tone of the film is most certainly giddily reminiscent of the Hammer of yore. The photography from Tim Maurice-Jones is far less whirligig and self-conscious than his work for Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, Revolver) but is eerily fluid and smooth, following Arthur on his tours of the house and the damp, mirthless village like a dark angel perched upon his shoulder, or slowly creeping up on him, unawares. This deceptively sedate visual pace is what bestows the more freakish instances their potency. The set of the Eel Marsh House, itself, is an edifice of lost world splendour, all gone to must and decay. The sense of space in the cobwebbed folly is creepily achieved, the CG-enhanced shots of the causeway and the precarious little islet never overly egged a la Peter Jackson. The effects are, for the most part, subtle, relying on build-up, suspense and just a fleeting image to do the damage. The film is also reassuringly short, effectively wrapped-up in just over eighty-five minutes. No padding. No waste. Just plunges us straight into the thick of it and continually cranks up the unease.
The cast is limited, but effective. Hinds is on reliable form, although there are a few moments when his frightened face looks as though it has become possessed by comedian Paul Whitehouse from The Fast Show, and he certainly seems to have taken a liking for all things diabolical with his nasty turn in the recent (and lousy) Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and a turn in The Rite back in 2011. The child actors are all excellent too … and considering some of the awful things that happen to them, or that they are forced to witness, this is all the more impressive. The ironically named Liz White provides some seriously sweaty palpitations as the titular Woman in Black. The only weak link in the chain is Janet McTeer, who plays the fragile and emotionally scarred Mrs. Daily. Seemingly in touch with Nicholas, the son that she and the understandably tender Mr. Daily, have lost in a mysterious drowning incident, she is prone to automatic writing, or drawing clues that will aid Arthur in his mission. But these scenes seem contrived and histrionic and far too convenient. Making up for this, though, are a reassuringly colourful procession of rustic faces making up the uneasy villagers.
And what would a spooky film be without a spooky score? Well, nowhere near as spooky for one thing. So, it is a pleasure to Marco Beltrami wielding the phantom baton. Beltrami is a very busy composer indeed, these days. Recently chalking-up the tension-ballads in two other genre remakes, The Thing and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (itself an adaptation of an incredibly scary made-for-TV film), as well as Scre4m, he is no stranger to ramping up the suspense and evoking a blood-chilling atmosphere. Here, his work is less melodic than usual, more startling and unsettling with sudden barrages of fury interweaved with delicate, soul-sapping underscore, and a terrific sense of ominous, sweetly-tinged tragedy. With quite a few moments enveloped with paralysing fear, he creates a deliciously cold and nerve-shredding ambience.
All of which reveal that Hammer, who have awarded themselves a swanky new Marvel-like animated logo, have found their feet.
With Let Me In, the resurgent studio went down an easy but still intuitive road to lining their slowly opening casket with enough coffers to sustain another feature. The Resident, however, was a wretched misstep that not even the presence of the still redoubtable Christopher Lee could lend any dignity to. The somewhat gentler, more emotional and visually familiar aesthetic of Wake Wood was a definite step back in the right direction. Suddenly, it felt as though you were watching something with that essential Hammer-vibe. Now, with The Woman In Black, the studio has faced the ghosts of its past … and embraced them. The film has made a lot of money and gained fine critical plaudits, and with Hammer so determined to claw its way back to the lofty gargoyle’s position it once attained as a genre-leader, this is exactly what it had to do.
A job well done. Now let’s up the stakes and spill some fresh blood.
I’ve been whispering it for a while, but I can shout it with pride “Hammer’s back!”
The Woman In Black is a terrific return to good old traditional British horror, so who better qualified than Hammer Films to bring all the requisite Gothic trappings – creaky mansions, misty enclaves suffused with parochial paranoia, a pervasive mood of spiralling unease, dark secrets unearthed in rural isolation by an intrepid outsider – and excellent production values to the big screen?
Daniel Radcliffe has his work cut out for him just trying to shrug off the veil of Hogwarts, but his portrayal of the haunted Arthur Kipps is a good, solid and memorable one. He fills the character with icy resolve, and a destiny-bound determination to right an unspeakable wrong. The spectre of death hangs poised just behind him at all times, and his quest to unravel the mystery of the terrible Woman in Black is fraught with disturbing occurrences and some serious audience jolts. It’s Sleepy Hollow without the quirks or the camp, and laced with an appreciable visual flavour of J-Horror. Unashamedly old fashioned, this is still one of the scariest stories to loom out of the shadows … and it translates enormously well with this new telling. I have a few concerns about cuts being made to guarantee the film a lower certificate in the UK, but I also have to admit that I think it is a good thing that so many younger people are able to enjoy the thrilling experience of a proper horror film in the cinema without it being jokey or full of risible brooding teen-angst.
Hammer Horror is back with a film that finally lives up to their name. Even slightly cut down, this is an extremely intense ride to a very dark and chilling place.
Great gothic fare, The Woman In Black comes highly recommended.
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