The return of the Hammer brand to cinemas is a welcome development in 2012, and it’s good to see it back with this well made, classy and impressive ghost story – albeit perhaps not one that quite warrants the laurels it received upon its release.
It’s a simple story – a run-down house on a remote island haunted by a ghostly woman in black whose appearance presages disaster. We’ve seen the story many times before, and indeed Susan Hill’s original 1983 novel on which the film is based is really just a pastiche of any number of similar stories and folklore going back centuries. It was never trying to be original, just to be the final word in being the best summary of all those tales in one go.
Since then the world of horror has moved on, although not by a lot; and indeed, the story of The Woman in Black seems to have prefigured much of the sort of J-Horror exploits from Japan, with a definite sense of Ring and The Grudge at work which have now crossed back over and visually influenced this new film adaptation in turn.
In summary, then, this film isn’t particularly original and probably never can be. There are a lot of clichés both plot-wise and stylistically – such as the frightened villagers ushering their children inside as the big city stranger Arthur Kipps walks past. It’s the type of thing we’ve seen many times since 1930s Universal and 1950s Hammer outings, and which has been parodied in everything from An American Werewolf in London to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The fact that the villagers blame Kipps for what ensues is somewhat irksome as no one ever actually thinks to tell him what the problem is so that he has no idea what’s at stake: another example of a film that would be 10 minutes long if people actually bothered to talk to each other about the most basic things.
But such things needn’t be a problem, providing that the film knows this going in and resolves to make the best darn ‘tribute’ ghost story it possibly can be in the circumstances. And by and large, The Woman in Black actually manages to achieve just that.
For one thing, it looks wonderful: the house and over-grown gardens are meticulously created with a real sense of ruin and desolation. Director James Watkins knows how to shoot them and gives a proper sense of pacing that allows the surroundings to envelop you with a true sense of decay, death and dread before the ‘action’ really starts kicking in.
The film is to be commended for not relying too heavily on the usual sort of “faux shocks” to make people jump just for the sake of it. While most of the scares are things you’ve seen before, there are still at least a couple of moments that will send a chill down the spines of even the most hardened of horror film fans. The most impressive sequences of all are early in the film, where there are “blink and you’ll miss it” subliminal moments that you spot out of the corner of your eye and then wonder if you’ve seen at all, adding to the sense of unease and uncertainty that you share with the characters.
Or to be precise, one character: most of the film has just one person on screen, and that’s Harry Potter graduate Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. There is a problem here in that he is – and moreover looks – far too young for the part of the widower with a young son to be entirely credible. But in every other respect, Radcliffe gives a sustained performance of completely believable excellence. Not once did he ever seem to falter or hit a wrong note, and in the long stretches of the film where it’s just him and us in the haunted house we are there alongside him 100 per cent throughout.
The other major star of the film is Ciarán Hinds as local landowner Daily. Hinds is, of course, also excellent; but at the same time, the film loses some of its edge once Kipps has back-up. The final third of the film also becomes rather too plot-heavy compared with the earlier sections, with Kipps becoming rather too instantly knowledgeable about the Scooby Doo/Supernatural techniques for exorcising ghosts than is really likely for a man of his era and social background.
There is a new ending to this film (which I won’t spoil) which completely explains the need for the earlier repurposing of Kipps as a bereaved single father and which also feeds into the overall sense of death, loss and despair that shrouds the entire film. For me, while it was a worthy attempt the new twist didn’t succeed and was the weakest part of the film, failing to deliver the character arc resolution it was clearly aiming for: although that said, the idea of Kipps packing up his case and jauntily returning to his old life would have been manifestly far worse.
Overall, then, this is a very solid, classy and well-made bit of old fashioned horror that’s been intelligently adjusted for the 21st century viewing audience. Not without its faults, and perhaps unfortunately somewhat over-hyped at the time it was released, but definitely worth the time and money to see – even if I personally would recommend you try the stage production at London’s Fortune Theatre in preference. Being scared by real events happening around you is always more effective than watching someone else being scared on screen: not for nothing is The Woman in Black behind only The Mousetrap as the longest-running play in the West End.