The Woman in Black (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Hollywood must have finally understood that America has had enough of the mindless torture porn horror films that they pushed upon audiences for years. I think the Saw franchise finally coming to end allowed multiple demonic horror and haunted house fright films to make their way back into local theaters. Sadly, these ghost films relied too heavily on the mockumentary/found footage technique that also worn out its welcome by the second Paranormal Activity. As far as straightforward horror films go, last year’s Insidious was a stand out and now we have The Woman in Black, a Hammer horror film that retains the gothic flourishes that was popular in films like 1959’s House on Haunted Hill and 1963’s The Haunting. Hammer Productions was famous in the 1950s for giving Universal’s Monsters alluring makeovers. Their hunger for style is alive and well in The Woman in Black as is a whole slew of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night.

Set in the early 1900s, The Woman in Black follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has found himself on rocky terms with firm he works for. Arthur carries a broken heart for his deceased wife who passed during childbirth and he also faces financial difficulties that have put a lot of pressure on his job. The firm he works for assigns him to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a marooned mansion that sits on an island in the northeast of England. Despite the protests of his young son Joseph, Arthur departs to a small village just outside of where the mansion is located. Despite warnings by the locals, who tell him to leave and forget about the mansion, Arthur stays to complete the paperwork and protect his job. Arthur also happens to become friendly with a wealthy local man named Sam Daily (Played by Ciarán Hinds), who fills him in on superstitions that run rampant through the village. After witnessing a bizarre string of suicides by several local children and the appearance of a disturbing apparition of a woman in all black, Arthur begins uncovering family secrets that are buried in Eel Marsh House.

Carried by a damp, nippy atmosphere, The Woman in Black establishes an ambiance and it never budges. There is barely any sunlight in the film and few characters ever muster up a smile or grin. The film only pauses once to give the audience a quick chuckle before it shifts back into gloom. To director James Watkins, atmosphere is everything, giving the scares more oomph. The downside to all of this is that he accompanies most of the scares by loud blasts on the soundtrack to make us jump. To make it worse, half the time it is a fake scare that only turns out to be a raven or a carriage driver. When Watkins isn’t falling back on easy creeps, he composes an image that confidently gives you the willies. The woman in black stands in a graveyard and in the blink of an eye, she is gone. Arthur peers out into the trees from the porch of Eel Marsh House in a storm and he slowly discovers that a group of ghostly children stare back at him, only distinguishable by their silhouettes. Our title antagonist peers down at Arthur from a second story window, resembling a ghostly photograph. It’s these scares that give credibility to The Woman in Black, making the film an above average haunted house treat.

In his first starring role since Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe makes a smooth transition from boy wizard to distressed adult.  I worried I would have a hard time taking him seriously, on the grounds that this film demands, and would instead still see him a kid. Radcliffe has grown up, folks, and here he gives a performance that is safe but allows us a glimpse of his range. I sometimes found him to be a bit stiff as Potter but here, he seems contented and confident, almost thrilled to be in something other than Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is disconnected and  distant, appearing drained and at times, he could be inches from collapsing from fatigue. There are moments when he’s courageous, racing into the decrepit mansion after an otherworldly sighting in an attic window or grabbing an axe and inching towards strange footsteps that creak behind a closed door. He plays nicely off of Hinds, who makes Sam just as emotionally wounded as Kipps but a bit wiser. He seems to be keeping Arthur level, warning him not to go “chasing shadows”.

The Woman in Black also makes a near fatal error with the haunted mansion it takes place in. It is never good when your friend leans over and whispers, “That house looks like the stereotypical haunted house in every scary movie!” There is nothing setting Eel Marsh House apart from every other haunted mansion expect the location. Sure it is an imposing structure, any given rundown structure will be, but there is nothing setting it apart. The inside resembles an abandoned haunted house that has been left until next Halloween. There are perfectly placed cobwebs and everything has a thick layer of dust covering it. One room does stand out and that is the room the most ghostly activity occurs in. Radcliffe spends most his time snooping around a child’s room, crammed with creepy clown dolls that suddenly burst with chirping music box tunes and a rocking chair that will suddenly rock violently back and forth.

Better than many will give it credit for, The Woman in Black succeeds because it doesn’t embrace the found footage gimmick. Sure, the film has its fair share of flaws including minor plot holes and a final act that begins to flirt with silliness. With horror, I’ve learned to be a bit forgiving to films that get it even half right. Last year’s Insidious also had its fair share of problems, but it gave me the creeps, which is what it set out to do, so I overlooked the sputtering final act. The Woman in Black’s ending doesn’t fall apart that bad and it wisely ends before things can get more outlandish. Ultimately, the film manages to give you the chills and leaves images in your head that you’ll wish weren’t there. And it does it barely a drop of blood to be found! The Woman in Black will restore your fear in those bumps in the night and I promise that you will be sleeping with a night light on for more than a few nights.

Grade: B+ 

Posted on February 13, 2012, in REViEW and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great review! A few thoughts…

    -I’m a sucker for “every stereotypical haunted house in every movie”. It’s when they break from that formula that I think things can go awry. Although really, if it’s well done, it could take place anywhere (as Woman in Black proves). Think of some of the better ghost stories out there- The Others, The Innkeepers, The Orphanage, The Innocents, The Changeling… Lots of stereotypical stuff in those, but it works. (counterpoint: Sixth Sense, Poltergeist)

    -I thought Radcliffe did a fine job, but I had a really hard time shaking the thought of him as Harry Potter. That’s not his fault, or the studio’s fault. It’s completely on me. It was a good 20 minutes in before I could stop being distracted by the fact that it was Harry Potter and the trains that he rode weren’t going to take him to Hogwarts.

    -As for the torture porn stuff, horror really is cyclical. It seems to be moving to ghosts/haunted house stories now. Before that, vampires had a crack at it. Before that, it was torture porn and J-horror/Japanese wet crawly white faced half CGI ghosts. Before that, on the heels of Scream, we saw a ton of new slashers, and some shaky cam stuff on the heels of Blair Witch. It seems that werewolves are about to get their turn at bat, probably because of the Twilight movies.

    • Thanks for checking out the review! My main compliant was that I didn’t think the mansion was ever really a character. The film never made me feel like I was wandering the halls with Arthur. I believe that the house should become a character and be something more than just an imposing force. Out of all the movies you listed, the two films that really had an impact on me were ‘The Innocents’ and ‘The Orphanage’. Those were some creepy examples. In the end, I’m just thrilled to see Hammer Productions back on the big screen.

      I’m glad we are moving back to ghosts and leaving the torture porn behind. You would figure someone like me would enjoy the torture porn horror films but I just don’t think that the had the heart that the old ultra-gory exploitation films had. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were the stand outs with the under appreciated ‘Grindhouse’. I hated the J-horror movement and really only found ‘The Ring’ to be a stand out. We also had the remake phase, which was mostly appalling (‘The Omen’ made me want to crawl under my seat and cry). The only two I respect are ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. I think werewolves will be cool. I think I am one of the only people out there to think ‘The Wolfman’ was actually kind of neat. I also love the original 1941 classic. I think it is so tragic.

      • I’m a HUGE fan of The Wolfman. I could babble on and on about why I think that movie is so great. It’s my favorite in the werewolf genre, and my favorite (and dare I say best?) of the Universal Creature Features. And trust me, I love all of the Creature Features. I don’t say “best” lightly.

        I’m right there with you re: torture porn and J-horror. I think the original J-horrors were fine but the re-makes… as you say, were bad other than The Ring.

        My favorite part of seeing The Woman in Black (at a screening) was standing in line talking to a guy who was a huge Hammer fan. I think most of the other people were there because it was Harry Potter (i.e. they were teen girls), and we were there because it was Hammer.

  2. Great review. This has been on my list to see since the trailer launched a few months ago, but I haven’t made it to the theater yet.

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