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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+ 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollow Ending: A Reflection of the Biggest and Most Disappointing Film of the Summer (2011)

by Charles Beall

I did not like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

There, I said it.  Phew, I needed to get that off my chest!  I have seen the movie twice now, because after the first viewing, when everyone started applauding and taking off their 3D glasses to reveal their tear-stained cheeks, I felt something was wrong with me.  Listening to the murmurs of praise among departing theatergoers, I found myself disagreeing with them.  I was quiet the rest of the night; I went to grab a beer with my friends and they kept asking me what was wrong.

“I didn’t like it,” I confessed, my head hanging in shame.  They looked at me like I was a freak, like I had said something along the lines of supporting Michele Bachmann for president.  What was wrong with me?!

I went back a second time…again, disappointment.  I am a horrible person, I thought to myself.

It seemed as if rain clouds followed me and I had a big scarlet “A” on my chest (for “asshole” for not liking the last-ever Harry Potter movie).  But then, I began to think that I wasn’t a horrible person- maybe the final Harry Potter chapter really did suck.

That is not to say that Hallows: Part 2 is a poorly made film; quite the contrary, which is why I was so disappointed in it.  First off, the craftsmanship on this film is amazing.  Not only is the cinematography gorgeous (Oscar-worthy, in my opinion), the eerie set pieces, costumes, visual effects, and even the performances are pitch-perfect.  Which leaves two key ingredients that are lacking that could’ve made this the best Potter film: the screenplay and direction.

Now I have had a love/hate relationship with David Yates as the director of the last four Potter films.  I wasn’t crazy about The Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (they were good, not great) but I was floored with Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (which I consider the best-and my most favorite-film in the series).  I loved the pacing of it and, by the end of that film, I conceded that it was a good idea to split the final book into two movies.  As the release date of Part 2 approached, I was eager to see it.

The gorgeous, foreboding pacing of Part 1 was replaced by a frantic, amateurish, and uneven film in Part 2.  I know this was an “action movie,” but the filmmakers (or Warner Bros. corporate heads?) abandoned what worked so well in Part 1 and just shat out the final chapter so it could get converted to 3D in time for its release date (my theory- not a fact).  Call me a pessimist, but there were dollar signs hanging over Hogwarts, not dementors; it felt that there wasn’t a screenplay, but rather a checklist of the last half of the book that Yates was going by.

The whole world has seen this film by now, so I will not go into an all-out review of it.  In the case of this article, I will touch upon some key scenes that I believe were butchered for this movie.

The first is the Battle of Hogwarts, which in the book was both heart-felt and action packed, but in the film was just action-packed.  Yes, all of Harry’s friends show up to help save the day, but that is it.  Indeed, it was like the film was a supplement to the book- you needed to have read it to know who people were and what their relationships to Harry were.  That emotional connection that was so well-written by Rowling and decently portrayed in previous films was thrown out for the last film.  I know their allegiance to Harry…I read about it.  I want to see it.

Another complaint of mine (in regards to the Battle of Hogwarts) is the death scenes of certain characters.  I will not name names in case the reader is one of the 19 people who haven’t seen the movie, but in the book, their deaths were dramatic and heroic.  They died for Harry, for the greater good.  In the movie, their deaths just served as a transition to the next scene, losing all of the emotional weight that it carried in the books.  Another death scene (SPOILER) is that of Bellatrix.  Now, that was my favorite part in the last book, mainly because I couldn’t wait to see Julie Walters deliver “the line” in the movie.  I knew going in that “the line” would be in there, and I barely missed it.   Again, it seemed that “the line” was just on the checklist that Yates had as his screenplay.  There was no emotion, no drama, no suspense to the delivery of “the line.”  It just happened…and it sucked.

Finally, the epilogue to the film, while nearly verbatim from the book, was just…what were we talking about?  To be fair, I felt the epilogue to the book, while bittersweet, was a bit too uneventful.  Yes we know everyone is okay and happily ever after, but this was a real chance for Yates to do something epic.  Do a montage of Ron proposing to Hermione, Harry proposing to Ginny, Hogwarts rebuilding itself, Ron and Hermione getting married, Harry and Ginny getting married, Neville and Luna hooking up, Draco becoming head of the Republican Party, the lives of Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny with their children, Hagrid marrying that giant chick from The Goblet of Fire, Harry killing Jacob and Edward from Twilight, etc.  How come after eight films of “tweaking” things from the books, the filmmakers actually take the weakest part of them and adapt it verbatim?!  You can end with the train station; just show what happened in those 19 years.  I wonder if Yates was working under the assumption that we had read the book and were waiting for, indeed expecting and demanding, the epilogue.  My hypothesis was validated with the hisses of “yes!” that escaped in the packed theater when the “19 years later” title card came up.

Now there are parts I enjoyed.  The fight between Harry and Voldemort is pretty badass; I even liked the lack of a film score in some scenes, just the cracking of spells from wands.  The best part of the film was Snape’s memories, which were really the only emotional part in the film.  This was a rare case where Rowling’s words were beautifully transformed to images on the screen.  I just wish the rest of the film was like that.

In conclusion, I didn’t hate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2– I was just disappointed in it.  There was so much building up to this final chapter that I just felt underwhelmed, unmoved, and let down.  Maybe my expectations were too high?  I will have to see it again, but at $13 a pop to see it, those pesky dollar signs play too much a roll.  Maybe when it is out on Blu-ray, I’ll revisit it.

Grade: C+ (but I really do love Harry Potter…don’t hate me!)