The Woman in Black. 2012. Directed by James Watkins. Screenplay by Jane Goldman; based on the novel by Susan Hill.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds, and Roger Allam.
Rated 14A. 95 minutes.
★★★I’d seen the film My Little Eye, which the director of this film James Watkins wrote in 2002, and a few years ago he wrote/directed the unbelievably edgy survival horror Eden Lake – a film starring Kelly Reilly (currently starring in True Detective Season 2 which I’m reviewing) and the ever chameleon-like Michael Fassbender, a favourite of mine.
When Watkins was announced to direct the remake of the 1989 television film The Woman in Black (an unsettling bit of work) – or better yet another adaptation of Susan Hill’s creepy novella of the same name – I was pleased. He didn’t write it, but I was confident enough with his abilities from watching Eden Lake that this film would do well in his hands. Even better, I personally think Daniel Radcliffe is a talented young actor – I’m a personal fan of the Harry Potter series, as well as a huge fan of his post-Potter work in Kill Your Darlings where he plays the enormous literary figure of Allen Ginsberg, and his turn as Ig Perrish in the adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel Horns. I believed Radcliffe and Watkins would make a nice team to tackle The Woman in Black, while the latter is already familiar with some horror, the former able to delve into the genre for the first time.
While the film isn’t bad, I don’t think it’s as scary as I’d like it to be – focusing more on cheap scares than overall effective fright. There is a ton of atmosphere, Daniel Radcliffe pulls out all the stops on his side of the deal, but ultimately The Woman in Black is not as creepy, to me, as its predecessor. All the same, there are good bits that I enjoyed regardless of its faults.
In a remote village named Cryphin Gifford, three young girls play together, pretending to sip tea. All of a sudden in the corner of the room, they see something. The girls get up, blank faced, and walk to the windows jumping to their deaths.
A few years later, solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) grieves for his wife Stella after she died during the birth of their son Joseph, who is now four years old. His employer has been waiting for Arthur to get over the death of his wife, insisting he visit Cryphin Gifford to the Eel Marsh House to examine papers left behind by the now deceased owner.
In Cryphin Gifford, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) and his wife Elisabeth (Janet McTeer) offer a hospitality. While Arthur visits the Eel Marsh House, he is disturbed by the appearance of a woman wearing funeral dress – everything black – and strange noises everywhere. Unsettled, he tries to tell people and nobody will listen. At the police station he tries to alert the constable, who tries to shoo Arthur away, the young solicitor is confronted by several children; one of whom has ingested lye. As Arthur calls for help the child dies.
The village blames Arthur – he saw The Woman in Black, therefore, he has brought death upon the village, the child. Things progressively get worse for Arthur, as the visions of the woman appear, more and more, until the spirit world meets the physical head-on.
I wasn’t too thrilled with a lot of the effects. There seemed to be too much use of CGI. When a haunted house-style film – who am I kidding with the word style? It’s a haunted house film, plain and simple – relies on effects that look too fake then there’s a lack of emotional intensity which comes along with the punch of its impact. There are some incredibly creepy haunted house movies that have used practical effects (my favourite being the 1977 horror The Sentinel), and plenty which took the same route as the one Watkins walks throughout The Woman in Black.
There are a couple scenes with practical effects, it isn’t all computer generated. At times when The Woman shows up, in the background creeping, where Watkins does opt for the practical look. But then, I still have a problem.
Now I know, there isn’t much variation you can do when it comes to a look for a woman wearing black funeral garb. I get that. However, it doesn’t help The Woman’s look that Insidious came out only two years before – James Wan’s movie sort of re-pioneered the funeral look. The character from Insidious and The Woman here just look too similar. They’re not identical, but the appearance is along close lines. Too close. Plus, I found the one in Wan’s film creepier.
My biggest beef with the movie is the use of the much maligned jump-scare. There are too many here.
I think there is a place and time for the jump-scare, but either way there needn’t be too many, over, over, until it all becomes old hat. I think The Woman in Black has a perfectly developed sense of atmosphere and tone – you can, at times, feel the dread behind each single shot. Particularly around the Eel Marsh House when Arthur is looking around the property, there are some foggy, distorted-looking shots that work well. Overall, that atmosphere holds up. Within the house are some excellently dark frames which make Arthur’s time there all the more frightening.
But Watkins, instead of giving more slow reveals, goes right for the jugular each time; not in the appropriate way, so it loses effectiveness. Each time Watkins tries to scare with jump, it gets less intense. Sure – even I jumped slightly at one or two of the first ones. Though, at the end of the day there’s no denying that the jump-scare, especially when used constantly throughout a movie, is a cheaper, more lowbrow way of actually scaring an audience. Had there been less of the jumpy stuff, I might have found the climax and finale scarier. Unfortunately, all those cheap shots really just made me care less about what was going on. You can scare anybody by jamming creepy-looking dead people and children into a shot quickly because it’s jarring, and added to that the score by Marco Beltrami (who did all the Scream series for Wes Craven plus many other films) – it’s like Instant Horror 101.
It’s not all bad, though. Despite my problems with the way Watkins handles the atmosphere he builds (then squanders) and the prevalence of too much CGI, I think The Woman in Black finds most of its strength in the acting abilities of both Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds.
While Ciarán Hinds is not as prominent in the film as Radcliffe, I think he is fantastic as Sam Daily. The relationship between he and his wife is a good one because it works well with the character of Arthur (Radcliffe). Sam and Arthur both understand loss – each of them deal with the ghosts of the past in their present lives, albeit in different ways. Hinds is a great actor, here he helps root the story in a place of believability, which of course is not always the case in every film involving a ghost story.
The true power of The Woman in Black comes from Daniel Radcliffe as the character of Arthur Kipps. In one of the early scenes as Radcliffe first enters the Eel Marsh House, there is an amazing look of true fear in his face and eyes; he looks under the bed, something runs by outside the room, and when he notices it there is a distant, raw look that comes over him. Just one of the reasons I find Radcliffe to be a mature actor. No longer is Radcliffe just Harry Potter (even though I loved him in the movies and love the whole series) – he has since prove himself more, but The Woman in Black was the start of a renaissance in his career that helped him break away from the role which put him on the map. The ability Radcliffe has for channeling emotion is moving, and this helps in so many of the scenes. Even after I stopped caring too much about the movie – due to the constant jump-scare nonsense – Radcliffe kept me interested in his character, at the least. Worth it, if only for him.
For me, The Woman in Black is only about a 3 star film. If James Watkins chose a different way to execute the scares after building up so much good atmosphere and solid tension, I might have enjoyed this film a hell of a lot more. What I can’t understand is why Watkins did things in such a way. Clearly, as evidenced by Eden Lake which played out far different than most survival horrors of its type, Watkins has the ability to unsettle and frighten in a much more visceral way than he decided to go for with The Woman in Black.
If it wasn’t for Ciarán Hinds and the always impressive Daniel Radcliffe, I don’t think I’d watch this movie again. But I really did think Radcliffe in particular did a good job. He made the emotions work where Watkins couldn’t seem to get the job done, and so many scenes could’ve fallen flat had the film been lead by a different actor.
While it’s far from a great haunted house movie, there are certainly worse out there. My recommendation is see this for the performances, not so much the effects or scares – you’ll get good acting, plus I can’t deny Watkins makes things creepy and suspenseful in more than a few scenes. Judge for yourself, but if you want a truly terrifying haunted house movie go for something like The Sentinel from 1977, or the George C. Scott-starred The Changeling.