Review: Atmosphere, Character Make 'Woman in Black' a True Return
by Jeremy Kirk
February 2, 2012
A lot of uncertain variables are at work in The Woman in Black. Since returning to the world of horror, Hammer Films has had hits - Let Me In and Wake Wood - and misses - The Resident. Fresh from the Harry Potter finale, Daniel Radcliffe is untested outside of the franchise. Director James Watkins' previous film, Eden Lake, was a mixed bag of heavy atmosphere and foreboding tension with an ending both anti-climactic and shaky. Perhaps Eden Lake is a fine indicator of what to expect from The Woman in Black, a gothic and effective throwback to the mood-drenched fogs and creaky manors of the Hammer Films of old.
A few flaws aside, it works well towards building suspense and an overall sense of dread, permeating through the audience with thrills both genuine and cheap, scares both fresh and common, solidifying its place comfortably beside modern horror before slipping into anti-climactic resolutions and shaky denouement. It's a structure Watkins might become known for before his career progresses much further.
Watkins' opening scene tells us all we need to know. Three young girls have an imaginary tea party. An unseen force enters the room, drawing the girls' attentions and almost lulling them into a kind of trance. The girls casually stand up, walk to the three windows on the far side of the room, and step out of the second floor of the building. It's an opening that speaks to both the film's story and its tone. There is no room for skepticism in The Woman in Black. A restless spirit means to do harm to the innocent, and no one, not even children - especially children, which is learned once the meat of the story comes into play - are immune.
Enter Arthur Kipps, played by Radcliffe, a young lawyer and recent widower still grieving over the death of his wife. Reluctantly leaving his son behind, Arthur travels to a village in the English countryside to settle the legal matters of a recently deceased woman. Once in the village, Arthur learns of strange and deadly occurrences going on, accidents resulting in the deaths of children, and the strange reactions the villagers give him as they learn of his business there. Once Arthur travels to the outskirts of the village, to the mansion in which the deceased woman resided, he learns of a dark secret and the evil ghost of a woman seeking vengeance for wrongs long since committed.
Obvious benefits arise in Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman keeping the early 20th Century setting of Susan Hill's 1983 novel. Instead of characters worrying about cell phone service or cars breaking down, they find themselves trapped in the dark hallways of the mansion. But more so than the clear advantages a period setting creates for compelling horror, Watkins keeps the production in The Woman in Black to a very practical level. CG is used fleetingly. Much of the scares and atmosphere here are built on very real goings on in very real locations. The sense of dread that comes the simple image of a door, once locked, that now lies wide open is clever in its simplicity even if we've seen it done before. If anything is amplified to enhance this level of mood it's in the sound design. Watkins makes sure we hear the creaking of wooden floors, the hard footfalls on a cobblestone road, the little moments of sound that ensure the genuineness of it all.
The Woman in Black does trip up a time or two, throwing a few obvious scares the audience's way usually accompanied by heavy stings on the soundtrack. These moments help keep us on our toes, but do little in the way of really scaring us. This comes in the moments when Watkins holds back. We see the dark image of the woman moving in the background, often blurred out enough that we aren't really focusing on her. Watkins uses skillful shot composition to relay enough information to keep us constantly moving our eyes around the image presented before us.
But the tone is found in more than just what we see or hear. It's found in the knowledge of Arthur's setting, trapped in a dark mansion miles from anyone and unable to leave the grounds due to the ocean's tide covering the only road out. This last aspect never comes directly into play, but simply knowing that Arthur is trapped here - and thus, so are we - creates tension in every minute he's inside that house.
It helps that Radcliffe seems to be taking the film as seriously as Watkins. The Woman in Black doesn't ask much of the actor, mainly walking around dimmed hallways and searching shadowy rooms, but he handles it all with the utmost sincerity. Engaged as Radcliffe is, though, he never overtakes the real star here, atmosphere and the milieu of a foreboding mansion and its foggy grounds.
The Woman in Black leads to something of an anti-climactic end, unfortunately, but even that works better than the coda Watkins and Goldman stamp on. This coda works in theory. The events that take place are neither hand-holding nor hokey, but the way in which Watkins chooses to show his audience rather than let implications rest for us to discern is both. It's an ending that would have benefited greatly from the less-is-more attitude the director took for the rest of the film. It doesn't ruin what precedes it. The rest of The Woman in Black is full of organic choices by its characters and a welcomed absence of trying to fool the audience with big reveals and shocking left turns. One can't help but wonder, though, how much more effective the film would have been from start to finish had Watkins held back in those final moments.
Looking past the clumsy epilogue and a few tired scares, The Woman in Black is a fine entry for Hammer Films, a film that carries all the gothic sensibilities that made the production company so memorable in the first place. James Watkins knows what makes a Hammer Horror film, and he's incorporated all of it here in fresh, interesting ways. In a time when horror films are loaded with ugly gore and equally ugly characters, The Woman in Black takes what's tried and true and makes it all feel new again. Even the fog has that fresh carriage smell to it.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10