It’s always hard when you have a story that started off in one medium and now needs to be fit into another. The Woman In Black was originally a novel by Susan Hill before being turned into a critically acclaimed stage play and even a TV movie in 1989. Now it’s made its way to the big-screen with Harry Potter megastar Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role and James Watkins, director of the excellent Eden Lake, at the helm. And I think it does its job rather well.
Set in the early 1900s, the story follows Arthur Kipps, a widower, father, and lawyer who travels to a remote village and an even more remote old house to settle the paperwork of a woman who died there. Once alone in the house Arthur starts to be terrorized by the vengeful ghost of the woman.
In a time when gore or constant jump-scares seem to dominant cinemas, it’s refreshing to get a film like this. A good old-fashioned spooky haunted house horror that thrives on the anticipation and the atmosphere rather than things popping out at you every five minutes. Watkins’ confident yet restrained direction gives the film a calm yet eerie quality, and when the big scares do come along they feel completely real, entirely earned.
Watkins made a name for himself with his 2008 film Eden Lake, which at first glance appeared to be yet another tired film about a bunch of teenagers being terrorized and killed in the woods, but was actually a smart and genuinely frightening experience (in the best of ways). Fortunately, the same can also be said about his second directorial feature, although it’s going for an entirely different kind of scary. Where Eden Lake was more immediate with its frights, this is more content to take its time, creating a mood and atmosphere – helped a lot by Marco Beltrami’s melodic score – that’s rarely seen in mainstream horror these days. It’s a brilliantly achieved mix of dark rooms and even darker corners, uncanny noises, floorboards creaking and ultimate jump scares to release the tension.
The only issue I had with the film was Radcliffe. It’s not that he didn’t give a good performance – he has clearly grown not just as a person physically but as a performer since he first played that famous boy wizard – but he is a tad on the young side to be completely believable as a fully trained lawyer who has lost his wife and has a son waiting back at home for him. But a committed performance by him allows you to put that to the back of your mind, at least for the most part.
This was clearly directed and written (by Jane Goldman, co-writer of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) by people who understand and, more importantly, appreciate horror in the classical sense of the genre. The film does come under the legendary Hammer banner, which is a lot to live up to, but I think it really does. An old-fashioned sensibility might not fit in with the modern horror crowd but that, in a weird way, gives it an edge.
There’s a chance the more hardcore of horror fans might be left unsatisfied with the lack of gore or think it too scared (pun intended) to go full-out all the time to try and scare its audience. Word is that (in the UK) the BBFC toned the film down from a 15 to a 12A age rating, which is bound to annoy some to no end. But for me The Woman In Black worked perfectly well as it is; pleasingly restrained and creepily atmospheric but still delivering a good amount of bang for your buck when it needs to.
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