The Woman in Black is a well recounted tale, from the original novel by Susan Hill we have been furnished with a stage play that has run for over 20 years in the West End, a BBC television adaptation and now a full length feature film. All take liberties with the source material to bring the most out of their mediums, and here in an adaptation by Jane Goldman The Woman in Black returns as a Hammer horror with the terror cranked up to eleven.
The story tells of a young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) who is sent to a north east village to tidy up the affairs of the recently deceased resident of Eel Marsh House. The residents take an instant distrust in the young man and warn him about spending any time at the house, but threatened with losing his job if the task isn’t carried out fully, and with a young son to support since the death of his wife, Kipps has enough incentive to travel out to the house and begin work.
Of course, after all these warnings and the fact that the house is covered in cobwebs, in the middle of nowhere and seems to be permanently shrouded in mist it is not long after his arrival that things start to go bump in the night. The major themes of the film are paedophobia and grief and these come into sharp relief as soon as The Woman appears. The film has a large cast of child performers and almost all of them are spookily silent and full of untold terror.
The strength of the novel and the stage play is that the reveal of the woman comes very late in the day. Here in the film she appears early in the first act and therefore the shock of her presence is muted, director James Watkins however uses her presence to further ramp up the tension to almost unsustainable levels. The choice by Hammer of using Watkins as director is a strong one. He knows horror, having directed several before and he also knows how to do things to the extreme, his film Eden Lake being one of the bleakest horror movies ever released. Watkins has great skill and his style here is to put things in the periphery. From as soon as Kipps arrives at the house, things move in the background, just out of shot, or right at the edge of the frame. Watkins applies all of the horror movie staples to set up tension and although there are a few ‘jump’ moments, Watkins uses them sparingly so as to keep his audience tense throughout.
The performers help him with this immensely, Radcliffe is an intelligent choice for this kind of performing (although he is about 10 years too young to make a truly convincing Kipps) he has been reacting to things that are not there for ten years in the Harry Potter series and here he is more than capable of using those skills to show the things we cannot see. He is less strong on the emotional scenes, in fact in any scene away from the house and his focus now should be on building his craft as an actor because the Potter effect will eventually fade and Radcliffe is not yet a fully rounded performer.
Ciaran Hinds as Daily, the only local man willing to help Kipps, brings his own back story to the piece, and maintains the skepticism with the audience well into the third act. The fact that these are the only two characters in the stage play show the strength of these role and they very much dominate this movie. Janet McTeer as Mrs. Daily being the only other adult performer of note in the production.
The production design is excellent, it seems like there is no floorboard that doesn’t creak and no door that opens silently. The choices of toys in the nurseries and the images created are all creepy and unsettling, the set of Eel Marsh House is the world’s best haunted house, every inch is hanging with potential unpleasantness.
Watkins and Goldman create a world in which everything is there only to build tension and this makes the film truly terrifying. The creative team make every scene tingle, and if you are watching this at night and then have to walk anywhere in the dark you will feel compelled every few steps to check over your shoulder. The ending is brave and strangely uplifting but by then your nerves are wracked and every sound sends a shiver up your spine. This film may be a 12A but I would recommend that only children with an incredibly strong disposition see this film in the cinema. I’m 29 and sleeping was an issue for a couple of days after.
- Made in Britain: The Woman in Black (moonwolves.wordpress.com)
- Meet Daniel Radcliffe at Lady in Black screening (geeksyndicate.wordpress.com)
- Quint calls The Woman In Black a welcome return to gothic Hammer horror! (aintitcool.com)
- ‘The Woman in Black’ Delivers Scares in Abundance – Reuters (reuters.com)