The Woman in Black asserts the supremacy of our myths about the human connection to the departed over the idea of a separate Christian heaven as the next progression of the afterlife. A malicious purgatory houses spirits that are both relentless and inescapable. Little Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), now grown up, still contends with a Voldemort-like force. But this time, he’s cast as a muggle with little in his arsenal to deal with the supernatural.
Based on the Susan Hill novella and adapted by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, The Debt, X-Men: First Class—most of them collaborations with director Matthew Vaughn), The Woman in Black stars Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a humble young widower with a small child (an adorable Misha Handley) in 19th-century England. Four years in, he still mourns the death of his wife to the point where it has affected his job performance. Given the assignment of dealing with a deceased woman’s estate, located at the end of a causeway and fully immersed during high tide, Kipps has one last chance to prove himself.
This is the catalyst (and mostly incidental) for the ghost story Kipps enters. For a good hour, he hears things go bump in the night (and day) and chases after apparitions. When all things scary are exhausted, events delve into the absurd. The dank, forlorn eastern U.K. coastal town in which Kipps finds himself, can’t catch a break, as children keep dropping like flies. The parents mill about defensive and defenseless. This is a village that no plague has ever turned down. And death follows Kipps everywhere he goes.
Director James Watkins was responsible for the modern-set small-town thriller Eden Lake. While his script was full of holes, he kept the suspense tight and feverishly paced. In this period piece, he slows down the story to a languid pace and revels in the production design team’s (Kave Quinn, Paul Ghirardani, Niamh Coulter) gorgeous compilation of trinkets and toys scattered about the exquisitely-accented haunted house. He wants to make sure the audience absorbs every spooky detail (i.e. a cascade of deer antlers running down the walls, candlelight reflected in the eyes of puppets).
He has a different landscape, period and plot to play in and it’s obvious he has an appreciation for the source material, while having a good time. You can feel the chill in the air and smell the mold covering the town. The colors are muted and the atmosphere quiet and foreboding. The soundtrack is drab and spooky, sometimes music-box-like. It’s rote territory, but he knows all the buttons to press to make the audience jump from their seats. Abrupt sound effects and unexpected objects dropping into the frame provide plenty of jolts.
While this film vies to be at the level of 2001’s The Others, it doesn’t have the luxury of a clever finale to tie all the proceedings together and reward the audience for their time. But, Watkins can respectably cross this genre off his list.