Review: The Woman in Black Brings Old-School Spookiness Back

A 1983 novel that has already been adapted into a 1989 TV movie and a long-running play, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black now sees itself resurrected as a feature-length film, much as the Hammer Films brand that it bears has been resuscitated in recent years. More so than the likes of Let Me In and The Resident, this ghost story bears closest comparison to the horror efforts of yore, and it serves double duty as an opportunity for Daniel Radcliffe to demonstrate his post-Potter chops.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young father and widower who makes a last-ditch effort to salvage his legal career and keep his family from destitution by agreeing to venture off to a dour Yorkshire village and sort through the critical, copious paperwork of an abandoned estate. Naturally, once he arrives, the locals aren’t happy. To them, the secluded Eel Marsh House is better left alone, but Kipps persists with the help of lone friendly face Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds), only to discover She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Liz White), the eponymous spirit who bears a serious grudge against children more alive than she is.

The entire film is a handsomely mounted bit of peek-a-boo, familiar yet enjoyable. A sizable sequence in the middle of the film sees Kipps encountering ghostly occurrences by his lonesome, and it’s refreshing to see what happens when so much stillness and silence is allowed to occur, without audible chest-puffing on his part or any requisite cell phone-related nonsense. The very premise takes post-modern cleverness out of the equation from the start, and the simplicity of the scares is refreshing (if, ultimately, a touch repetitive). When Arthur idly spins a zoetrope and thinks he sees something beyond the illusion, are we not doing the same?

Given the time period, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to picture Radcliffe as a young father, nor is it so hard to swallow that he’d go wandering down the dark, cobwebbed halls of Eel Marsh House with only a candle or lantern in hand. It was the late 1800s; everyone’s house looked haunted, and every doll looked creepy as hell. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones emphasize well the confining nature of spaces both narrow (such as attic-bound stairwells) and wide (the causeway to Eel Marsh vanishes with the incoming tide) when not having good old-fashioned fun with fog and shadows. Jon Harris’ editing is reliably crisp, and Marco Beltrami’s score is suitably gothic without really defining itself as a horror theme for the ages.

Radcliffe is a suitable foil to the supernatural antics, haunted himself in ways established from the top (he still wears his wedding band) when not reacting reasonably in the face of the peculiar and sinister, and as a father without his son, Hinds – along with Janet McTeer as his out-of-sorts wife – gets to embellish similar sorrow and skepticism to a more developed degree. The recurring horror of children dead or dying rarely feels cheap or exploitative, instead it serves well to establish both the stakes of the plot and the extent of the ghost’s menace. Overall, Jane Goldman’s adaptation nicely dovetails the narrative threads of a son who’s lost his mother and a mother who has lost her son.

The ending ultimately skews sentimental, and the film overall hardly breaks new ground in the genre. However, if this is what disposable modern horror is going to look like, I’ll take the classical frights of The Woman in Black over the herky-jerky hokum of The Devil Inside any day.

Grade: B