Film Review: The Woman in Black

The unimaginative approach of both director and screenwriter make this attempt at classy horror singularly uninvolving and lacking in the essential element of surprise.

God, how I wanted The Woman in Black to be good! There are few genres as endlessly satisfying as a really good ghost movie (The Uninvited, The Others, the original Haunting and, best of them all, The Innocents), and with its classy look and attempt to revive the famed Hammer Studios horror tradition, James Watkins’ film looked highly promising.

Unfortunately, this adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel, which has already been turned into a play, TV movie and radio series, is agonizingly slow, much too thin script-wise, and sorely lacking in the creepy touches and sense of fun so necessary to all good horror.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a cash-strapped, widowed lawyer who goes to an isolated village to attend to the estate of a deceased eccentric. He has an adorable imp of a son (Misha Handley), who draws pictures of Mummy in heaven and Daddy with an inverted “u” for a mouth. When asked why, he pipes, “Because Daddy’s always sad.”

In the village, Pitt meets up with someone who literally does have that kind of mouth, Daily (Ciarán Hinds, with his morose joke of a face), the local millionaire who becomes his only friend as he realizes that a strange female specter is menacing the area, with a disturbingly high rate of child mortality.

Director Watkins works hard to establish a mood of dread. Too hard. The familiar elements are trotted out: the scary big old house, apparitions of dead children at windows, sinister villagers, and fog, lots and lots of fog. But it’s all laid on with such a heavy trowel, with nary an instant of the mordant humor which filmmakers like James Whale found so efficacious, that you watch it all from a distance, without being effectively pulled in. Watkins also makes irritating use of that modern horror cliché of thunderous sound effects to underline every shock moment. You can sense things mounting on the soundtrack with the inevitable big Bang coming, which robs the movie of the surprise or true feeling of dread which mere unsettling silence could provide.

The screenplay is also at fault, never providing enough background to the central spectral dilemma. We see a veritable army of ghostly kids, after the fact, with little idea of how their mounting deaths would have struck terror into the hearts of those rotely assembled, very dour villagers. (Perhaps the problem is with the original book itself, which also seems rotely assembled, and those child deaths a particularly icky, unseemly preying on the fears of yuppie parents.) The house, which should be as much of a character as anything here, is just a predictably organized affair with transparently art-directed touches like antlers on the walls, eerie mechanical dolls and those ubiquitous three evil-shunning monkeys. (After all the heavy décor in this and the Harry Potter series, it should be a relief for Radcliffe to next appear in a clean, modern setting.) The film is also direly underpopulated, with its camera largely trained on Pitt as he struggles alone to unlock dark secrets.

It’s lucky for Watkins that Radcliffe, despite the paucity of the material, is such a good, committed actor—wholly convincing, even at his tender age, as a loving father—and, even better, such a magnificent camera subject. The actor has said how he has finally come to terms with his own “staccato” physicality (a large part of his charm, which was on particular display onstage in Broadway’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). He tones himself down considerably here, to match his character’s mournful nature and the meditative—and that’s putting it kindly—pace of the film, but his face remains riveting and at times quite beautiful. He has the Byronic handsomeness of a pre-Raphaelite hero, as well as an amusing resemblance at times to that great emblem of horror, Dwight Frye.

Hinds does his usual crepuscular thing, while Janet McTeer as his eccentric wife, devastated by the loss of their son, seems to be trying to do Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End, another robustly Amazonian actress miscast as a frail Victorian wraith. There’s really no one else around, except for the Woman in Black herself, who’s a shrieking, disappointingly unimaginative rag-bone-hank of hair amalgamation out of a cheap carny ride, devoid of any real sensually horrific suggestiveness. She, of course, contributes to the film’s particularly abrupt and unsatisfying ending.