Recently widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) reluctantly leaves his young son in London when his law firm demands that he head to a remote village in the north of England where the decaying Eel Marsh House resides and deal with the will of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow. When he gets there he encounters hostile and superstitious locals living in fear of some threat that seems to be connected to a mysterious woman in black. Soon he suffers terrifying visions and begins to uncover a dark story connected to the house and its former residents.
After a string of films set in modern times like “Let Me In”, Hammer Horror has returned to its roots with an old fashioned tale involving gothic houses, superstitious rustic locals and supernatural threats.
The film is based on a highly successful book by the writer Susan Hill (my mother is a major fan so she must be good). It has been quite influential as it has spawned a television series and a long-running stage play in London’s West End. Jane Goldman, who adapted Kick Ass and Star Dust, works her magic here by changing elements of the book and making it more cinematic according to my mother.
In any case what impressed me most about the film was that it hit all of its genre marks with aplomb. Although there is nothing new in terms of scares what is here is expertly done. The atmosphere and tension are thickly built up from incidental details like ads for a séance sponsored by famous authors to the rarity of telephones and cars. Scenes take place rooms cluttered with creepy Victorian toys and in atmospheric locations like the foggy London streets to the wild north with its cold external locations to the dust choked Eel Marsh House which is a mysterious and evocative rambling ruin where ghosts can pop up and disappear.
Direction is patient and the audience is allowed to drink in scenes. There are many long-takes where ghosts will pop up in and out of shot, sudden jump-cuts to terrifying images, sound design that highlights the cavernous nature of the house, the growing supernatural threat and the dislocation that mist can cause.
Plunged into this environment is Radcliffe who finds himself chasing shadows. Having ignored the Harry Potter franchise I had little idea of Radcliffe’s acting skills but he managed to play the emotionally shell-shocked Kipps very well.
Although he looks a little young for the role he conveys a sort of enervated presence and I felt he was convincing. Equally convincing were his belief in the supernatural and the motivation that roots him to a house most sane people would stay away from. Also strong are the supporting cast which includes Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer.
While the ending came as little surprise for this horror vet I appreciated the atmosphere and execution, the detail and the acting. So far 2011/12 has been excellent for British film and it is great to see Hammer Horror back at its best. This is the first horror film of the year for me so far and I find it hard to believe that it can be topped. That’s a challenge to film distributors.
The Woman in Black
Release Date: 10th February 2012 (UK)
Running Time: 95 mins.
Director: James Watkins
Writer: Susan Hill (original novel), Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Shaun Dooley