“Don’t go chasing shadows, Arthur …”
When I reviewed the cinema release of Hammer’s excellent The Woman in Black, I was discussing the cut versionthat helped ensure that all the Potterites could get in to see it, and I found myself commenting on the tactics employed to make the film the phenomenal success that it turned out to be. Six seconds of trims granted it a 12a certificate and then releasing it at Half Term inevitably smacked of pure commercial gain over original thematic and artistic integrity. I do not advocate film censorship at all, especially not for reasons such as this … and yet, looking at the bigger picture, I concluded that my opinion should be tempered with the fact that this manoeuvre has certainly paid massive dividends at the box office, with the knock-on effect being that the resurrected studio’s fourth feature production has now ensured 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 developmental status, along with immeasurably aiding the restoration and release on Blu-ray of their formidable back-catalogue of classic titles. This, to my mind, cannot be a bad thing.
Not only that, 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?
The version I’m reviewing here is the uncut one from the US, available on region A-locked BD from Sony. The differences are, indeed, minimal, although they do succeed in adding to the overall intensity, as well as leaving a somewhat nastier taste in the mouth.
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 (Roger Allam) insists that he head off the north eastern coastal village of Crythin Gifford to see to the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice 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 and the mist 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 (neon-flame-haired 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 memorable 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 poetically 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, even if it is a little too sweetly neat for some to swallow.
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 in the period in which the story is set, 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? He is 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 life 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, procured for the part to ensure some genuine empathy), 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 selfless 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 like the hordes who attended the film at the cinema. 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. This US edition is without the cuts that the UK version suffered theatrically, and there are a couple of physical jolts that make an impact – a human flambé, a swift and bone-crunching hanging, a child vomiting blood - but even beyond the graphic dénouements there is a deep-seated intensity to the pain and suffering on display. That image of the 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 sight of her anguished father – actually played by Bread’s Victor McGuire – carrying her lifeless form through the village not only strikes a disturbingly primal chord of helpless anger, it also invokes memories of similar imagery seen in both the vintage Universal horror of James Whale’s Frankenstein and the Hammer outing of Vampire Circus, in which innocents were slain and communities grieved in collective shock and despair.
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 no 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. The sound of the chair, alone, is like a revisiting to the satanic aural dementia of Robert Wise’s The Haunting. 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. A grim 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 tricks us and Arthur as, after an investigation outside reveals that there is nobody there, a trail of muddy footprints is found to have traipsed through the house behind him. And the treats keep on coming. The lights going out, one by one, on the landing as Arthur looks on, awaiting the spectre. A face or a hand 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 and pale blue eyes that really look as though they’ve glimpsed something from beyond! 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, post-Voldemort. There is a level of maturity here that only that spindly 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. But he is also brilliant at concocting some breathtakingly picturesque period frames, such as the shot of Arthur saying goodbye to his son on the smoggy cobbled London street, and the gorgeous wide shot of the sun-kissed locomotive transporting him North. The immaculately set-dressed location 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 fly-over shots of the causeway and the precarious little islet never overly egged a la Peter Jackson. Focus-pulls are seamlessly strategic, the staging of the principle amongst the bizarre and the frightening always fully involving, and although much of this is necessarily elaborate you never feel cheated by a deliberately showy angle or duped by scenic decoration. The effects are, for the most part, subtle, relying on build-up, suspense and an image just fleeting enough to do the damage. The film is also reassuringly short, effectively wrapped-up in just over around ninety minutes. No padding. No waste. Watkins just plunges us straight into the thick of it and continually cranks up the unease from then on.
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 an appearance 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 linked to the spectre, 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, although they do tie-in to Arthur’s barely referenced interest in the art of the newfound mediums that the screenplay implies he might believe can help him contact his dear deceased wife. However, McTeer runs the risk of stepping over the line into farce, especially with those damn little dogs – the twins – that she dotes upon and her swift trance-like spells of artistry, and she only just manages not to disrupt the tone. Compensating for this, though, are a reassuringly colourful procession of rustic faces making up the gaggle of uneasy villagers. We’ve been in these unwelcoming enclaves many times before, and it is now a cliché, but the denizens of Crythin Gifford have solid reasons for their antagonistic attitude to Arthur’s unwanted intrusion … and you do feel for them. I like the fact that the film doesn’t make any attempt to play the class divide card. They see Arthur only as an unwitting unfortunate and not as a social enemy. Made by other hands, it is easy to imagine a set-piece revolving around the tougher yokels attempting to make life physically unpleasant for the officious stranger from the big city, which would have been an unneeded complication.
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 that depicts their colourful former glories, 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 like the old friends and confidantes that they are. 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.
The Woman in Black is a job well done. Watkins nails the atmospherics and supplies plenty of well-structured stylistic nuances. His leading man leaves wizardry behind and finds his feet, doing a surprisingly emotional story proud. As a result, the film worked extraordinarily well with large audiences, and it is great to discover that it is equally as nail-biting on the smaller screen, where its intimacy is more possibly more acute and disquieting. Now it is time for the studio to up the stakes and spill some fresh blood.
I’ve been whispering it for a while, but now I can shout it with pride “Hammer’s back!”
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