By Shane M. Dallmann
Your reaction to THE WOMAN IN BLACK may be different than mine, and it’s probably going to depend a lot on what you bring to the movie in the first place.
For example: You may have read the book or seen at least one of the previous dramatizations. I hadn’t.
The Hammer Films logo may not mean anything to you. It does to me.
Since the resurgence of the British studio, I’ve only seen one of their new releases, and I was too busy comparing LET ME IN with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN to let it sink in as part of the Hammer legacy.
Ah, but THE WOMAN IN BLACK? Here, at last, is a traditional, old-fashioned Gothic thriller which is very much something the original studio might have attempted (probably in the late 60s or early 70s). I couldn’t help but start assembling a dream cast for such a project… Shane Briant (or perhaps a young Ralph Bates) in the lead… perfect spots for Andrew Keir, Thorley Walters, Michael Ripper and Barbara Shelley…
…I digress. Of course I could watch the new movie on its own terms, and I can certainly report that Daniel Radcliffe is perfectly fine and comfortable in the lead without invoking constant memories of you-know-who.
And the story? Relentlessly grim and uncompromising from the very first scene. SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the paragraph: if you are at ALL sensitive to the device of children dying over the course of a horror movie, you’d best avoid this one… the youngsters would have a better chance of surviving VAMPIRE CIRCUS (ah, and it was great to see “Emil” from that very film incorporated into the Hammer logo… wait… there I go again).
Radcliffe is Arthur Kipps, a widowed father whose legal career and livelihood are on the ropes–his shot at redemption is a journey to a remote village and the successful completion of some difficult estate paperwork. The trouble is, in classic fashion, the villagers obviously DON’T want him there. Deep dark secrets, catastrophic consequences for meddling… you know the drill. But Arthur presses on… and once he catches sight of the Woman in Black, nobody’s safe. Especially the children.
The movie isn’t completely gore-free (there’s one especially gruesome moment detailing what one of the youngsters is driven to do), but the film relies almost exclusively on good, old-fashioned “boo” scares without over-relying on the phony versions. This, coupled with the morbid subject matter, keeps the atmosphere stifling and apprehensive throughout, much to its credit.
Speaking of “credit,” if you had told me that THE WOMAN IN BLACK was directed by James Wan, I would probably have believed you. Not only is the film restrained in a manner similar to DEAD SILENCE and INSIDIOUS, but it also features a sequence (part of the central tour-de-force that proceeds with barely a spoken word) straight out of Argento’s DEEP RED–indeed, the writing is literally on the wall, and the only thing missing is a pounding Goblin soundtrack. But such a soundtrack, of course, would have felt out of place for this movie as a whole, so it’s best to enjoy the moment with your imagination.
In actuality, THE WOMAN IN BLACK was directed by James Watkins, who previously did the honors for EDEN LAKE in addition to scripting the highly disturbing “snuff reality” shocker MY LITTLE EYE back in 2002. Watkins demonstrates rich atmosphere, sympathy for his characters and high respect for tradition: particularly those established by the studio that now represents HIS work. In all, it’s a most creepy and satisfying horror film, and had it been released last year, I almost certainly wouldn’t have had such a hard time picking a winner.