Written by: Susan Hill (novel), Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Directed by: James Watkins
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and CiarŠn Hinds
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďDon't go chasing shadows..."
Hammerís revival has seen them approximate their way back to their roots in baby steps; that they kicked things off with a vampire film (Let Me In) only seemed appropriate, plus it allowed them to visit the 80s after they were forced to sit that decade out during their hiatus. Their first (and to date only) misstep was The Resident, but even it featured Christopher Lee as a nice nod to the studioís history. When they released Wake Wood, we finally got back to the stuff of classic Hammer with its occultism in the UK countryside; however, even it had some modern trappings to keep it from feeling completely vintage. Not so with The Woman in Black, a film thatís merely ďpresentedĒ by Hammer as a distributor but feels like it could have been shot at Bray Studios fifty years ago--and, yes, thatís a good thing.
Like in both the original novel and the 1989 television adaptation, this one starts with lawyer Arthur Kipps (Danielle Radcliffe, stepping into the same role once inhabited by his on-screen Harry Potter father, Adrian Rawlins) being shipped off to a rural village to settle the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Upon arrival in the small village town, he finds some spooked locals, many of which tell him to leave and never return. Undeterred, he presses on with the assistance of a local man (CiarŠn Hinds), heís ferried out to the foreboding Drablow estate, where he has ghastly visions of a black-clad woman whose own tragic history is connected with the decadesí worth of child deaths in the area.
Interestingly enough, this is Hammerís first ghost film, and itís certainly their most timeless and classical since their resurrection a few years ago. The Woman in Black is draped in a period setting brought to life by lush photography and set design. With a few notable exceptions (read: CGI touch-ups), itís about as vintage and old-fashioned as a horror film can look in 2012. Maybe its approach is a little outmoded and its story a bit rehashed, but the atmospherics and simplicity play like a breath of fresh air; every now and then, I think horror needs to go back and update the stuff that once worked, and itís refreshing to see someone go all the way back to the classic Hammer wheelhouse. Even though the original novel was written in the 80s, it seems like it could have been a screenplay that would have crossed Michael Carrerasís desk in the 60s.
Itís a crackling little ghost tale, one that has a few nips and tucks from both the original novel and television adaptation; for the most part, these changes work. Kipps is now a widower whose wife died during childbirth, leaving him with what is now a four year old son; this rounds out the character a bit and also gives Radcliffe a chance to carry over some of that tortured soul empathy from Potter. I thought that Radcliffe might be a bit young for the part, but he truly has a maturity to him here, and, before I knew it, I realized I wasnít just watching Harry Potter skulk around an old dark house. Instead, he inhabits the role of Kipps quite well and realizes a sympathetic character. We also never lose sight of his relationship with his son, which is a boon since the film revolves around grief and loss. Familiarity with the original story will allow you to connect all of the dots anyway, but I feel like this version feels much more compact and tightly wound, whereas the original film sort of tacked on the personal stakes during the last act.
Radcliffe is surrounded by a solid supporting cast in terms of actors (including Janet McTeer as Hindsí wife); however, his best support comes from the Drablow estate and its surrounding marshlands. This version manages to amp up the dreary isolation from the original by situating the action on this huge, gothic island thatís terrified all of the locals, including the carriage driver who reluctantly agrees to ferry Kipps out there. The house itself is similarly gorgeous in a macabre sense, drenched in shadows and cobwebs, a place that feels like it was a crypt even when Alice Drablow was still alive. Most of the filmís action takes place here as we watch Radcliffe slink and scurry while chasing shadows and noises, leading to the filmís jumps and frights--some of them are telegraphed, some of which aren't. Most work regardless, and the film only bothers to slow down when it needs to unfurl the mystery at its center (which is again somewhat clunkily handled via some exposition scenes, though some of it is more gracefully done than it was in the previous film version).
This is a marked improvement all the way around on that television adaptation, a film that was the slowest of burns in the sense that it really worked up to one incredible scare at its climax. The update is a few steps away from that, as it parcels in a lot more overt frights (in fact, it opens with the disturbing image of three little girls leaping out of the window). However, it never shrieks out unbearable volumes and keeps things reigned in just enough; director James Watkins smartly retains what worked in the original film, such as the foggy, disorienting wall of white noise on the marsh and keeping the title character on the fringe of the frame. He also manages to keep the film unsettling when weíre away from the Drablow estate, though, as the adjacent town feels haunted from the outset, as Kipps is greeted with darting, suspicious looks and the disturbing deaths of children that heís forced to witness.
Updates like this are always a tricky proposition, but The Woman In Black does it about as well any; itís not only faithful to the source material, but also to the gothic horror cinema to which it harks back. Itís lean in narrative but assured in style, which is exactly what Iíd say about most Hammer flicks that relied on theatrics over intricate plots. This one is no different--itís just a quaintly creepy haunted house movie that simply asks you to get lost amongst misty marshes, wooden crosses, and decrepit hallways for ninety minutes. It holds up its end of the deal, so check it out in theaters before picking up the home video release that will look right at home alongside Hammerís classic offerings. Buy it!
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