is a haunted house of a movie in all the right ways.
As anyone who has read Susan Hill’s novel or seen the stage play adaptation of The Woman In Black can attest, it’s a proper scary little number. The kind of read or theatrical experience that has you slightly worried to look in the mirror after dark for fear of what might be lurking behind your own reflection.
Back in 1989 there was a TV Movie version of the ghost story which, despite its obvious budget constraints, still captured the haunting essence of the narrative. It is therefore somewhat surprising it’s taken this long to bring us a fully-fledged cinematic outing of the tales of Eel Marsh House. Perhaps even more surprising some Hollywood executive didn’t snap up the rights and re-locate it to sunny Florida. Instead it fell into the hands of Hammer, a recently resurrected studio who know just a thing or two about horror and how to scare people.
Having lost his wife four years earlier during the birth of his son, lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) has become a shell of a man. His employers give the young lawyer one last chance to redeem himself by sending him to a remote village to sort out the paper work of Eel Marsh House and its recently deceased owner Mrs. Drablow. On the train there he meets Mr. Daily (Ciarian Hinds) whose reaction to Kipps’ destination is worrying. Arriving in the village Kipps is given a frosty reception and is advised by local solicitor Jerome (Tim McMullen) to leave town. Kipps ignores this information and finally manages to get a lift across the causeway to the dilapidated house. Once there though, he becomes aware of a presence still in the house and a mysterious death that has damning repercussions on him and the villagers.
As with any good horror film The Woman In Black builds slow, luring you in, hinting at more menacing things to come. The first two thirds of the film set the mind racing to try and guess all the mysteries of the village and the wonderfully gothic Eel Marsh House. And then, the fear kicks in. Like a well-oiled ghost house ride at a fun fair the scares pop-up readily and regularly. It is a film which prays on the mind as much as the finger nails. A kind of period What Lies Beneath.
Director James Watkins, who has form in the nerve shredding stakes with gritty little thriller Eden Lake, never tramples on the scares. He smartly telegraphs them allowing you to know when something nasty is just round the corner, but in such a way as to heighten your inevitable terror. Never does he resort to the screech of a sudden violin. Instead when the jumps come they are drawn out, the kind that leave you gasping rather than clinging to the ceiling, your popcorn conveniently strewn across the room. Watkins and writer Jane Goldman, best known for her writing duties on X-Men First Class and Stardust, litter the film with clever little motifs, the likes of which will haunt you long after the credits have rolled. Indeed if you ever look at a child’s toy with sweet sincerity again you were probably cowering behind a cushion at various points.
At times it becomes a little formulaic, presenting you with set-pieces and scares nicely littered amongst the exposition slowly unraveling the mystery and the end forgoes the bleak climax of the book for a more upbeat message.
If there is a flaw to be had it comes from the former boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe. In his defense he plays Kipps with a level of maturity we never saw in Harry Potter, but he always feels miscast. It’s hard to accept that someone we’ve seen grow up on screen could have a four-year-old son. And the facial hair does little to convince otherwise. The casting makes sense from a financial point of view, given his built in box-office pull, but overall, despite his best efforts, it is hard to see past his boyish looks and slightly startled expression.
If you want a good scare, enjoy a shiver down the spine then The Woman In Black will certainly fulfill your needs. It fails to scale the heights of the stage play, but this is nonetheless a film well worth watching on a rainy night in. Perhaps not one for hardened horror fans this is a film still packed with moments of delightful thrills. Just remember to check behind doors before you turn any lights on.