BRIT PICK: The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black (UK, 2012)
Directed by James Watkins
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White

In a couple of recent articles for WhatCulture! , I talked about the revival of the Hammer brand and the resurgence of old-fashioned ghost stories. Both of these trends are typified by The Woman in Black, the latest from Eden Lake director James Watkins, and Hammer's first genuine assault on the mainstream, if we discount their involvement with the UK distribution of Let Me In. Quite apart from its healthy gross and lengthy period in UK cinemas, the film is a very good, old-fashioned chiller which rivals The Others among recent efforts in the ghost story sub-genre.
It doesn't take an expert in the horror genre to recognise that we are in well-worn territory. Susan Hill's novel is deeply embedded in the traditions of gothic horror pioneered by The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. Both the novel and the screenplay by Stardust's Jane Goldman draw on key genre tropes, such as the distant community full of suspicious locals, the dark house in the middle of nowhere, the disappearance of children, and the 'mad governess' motif (the idea that the action could be entirely the product of the lead character's imagination).
If one were being cynical, one could say that the reputation of Hill's novel has been inflated by the success of the stage play, which continues to terrify audiences young and old across the world. The film has a key disadvantage over the play in the manner in which it must reveal the Woman in Black; the very nature of the medium means that there are only certain directions in which we can be looking for her. The film reveals the Woman in Black a little too soon, so that while she still scares you half to death, we have time to adjust to the fear, something we never get in the play.
Like most ghost stories old and new, The Woman in Black is about the boundaries and interaction between the temporal and spiritual world. Its characters are arranged on a spectrum ranging from unconditional belief (Daily's wife) to grief-ridden uncertainty (Kipps) and aloof scepticism (Daily). There is a greater mystery element to this film than there is to The Others or The Haunting: while the protagonists in those films are tormented by virtue of being in a certain place, Kipps almost goes looking for trouble as he pours through the paperwork as Eel Marsh House.
The great success of The Woman in Black is its ability to draw on the conventions of the horror genre in a manner which doesn't come across as clichéd, hokey or desperately generic. The film is not self-conscious, invoking trope after trope in a knowing manner like the Scream series. But there is an acknowledgement on the part of Watkins that these motifs (call them what you will) have a staying power and validity. Not only does Watkins appreciate them, he crucially believes that they can still be scary, and in this film he really puts his money where his mouth is.
For starters, the production design is very lavish. While much of Hammer's original charm lay in its creakiness and rough edges, The Woman in Black is a product of 21st century production techniques. The costumes are meticulously crafted to reflect period details, the weather conditions are convincing, the CGI is blended very well with the more organic effects, and the set design is ornate and elaborate. Nothing is left to presumption or expectation - when we arrive at Eel Marsh House, it doesn't look like a back lot left over from the early-1960s.
Despite being a British production of a British novel, The Woman in Black's visuals have a distinctly Scandinavian feel to them. The wide shots of Eel Marsh house have an existential bleakness to them: the lonely figures riding along the causeway are overshadowed by this almost mythical house, which rears up out of the sea like the mental hospital from Shutter Island. Watkins really creates the sense of a house at the end of the world, where the temporal and the spiritual can interact and coexist.
The Woman in Black, like many ghost stories, is about dealing with grief. Kipps takes on the Eel Marsh House case to take his mind off the death of his wife, and prove to his employer that he is mentally up to the job. Kipps and the Woman in Black are two sides of the same emotional response, namely the desire to care for one's child. While Kipps is essentially selfless, risking all he has for his young son, the Woman in Black's trauma has made her a force of pure malevolence - she attacks the children of others in revenge for what was done to her own son.

The film has its fair share of scary moments which reinforce this theme. There are a lot of jump scares, involving doors slamming, loud noises and the recreation of a hanging, but they are at least executed in an inventive way. The best of these occurs when Kipps is in the nursery, and idly flicks through a zoetrope - only to see an eye peering through at him on the other side. This, along with the steady darkening of the main corridor and the infamous rocking chair, are very effective means of announcing the presence of the Woman in Black.
Better still are the various scenes involving the death or disappearance of children, another common theme in ghost stories. The film opens with the unnerving image of three beautiful young girls, who suddenly get up from their tea party, walk over to the open window and jump to their deaths. When Kipps tries to save another girl from burning to death, he peers through the keyhole into the cellar, and finds the Woman in Black standing over her with the girl completely in her power. The recovery of the pony and trap, which owes a debt to Don't Look Now, finds Kipps emerging from the marshy depths cradling the dead son in his arms as if it were his own.
The ending of The Woman in Black reinforces this theme, echoing The Orphanage in its marriage of tragedy and catharsis. As Kipps rushes onto the track to save his son, he sees a series of ghostly figures on the train - all the souls of the children whom The Woman in Black has claimed in her quest for vengeance. His act of sacrifice ultimately brings him want he wants - he is reunited with his wife at the cost of his own life. As they wander off hand in hand, they leave The Woman in Black to her fate: they have moved on from their grief and made peace with the world, while she is doomed to linger on.
Much has been made about the performance of Daniel Radcliffe, in his first serious post-Potter role. It's an interesting departure point to choose, considering the debt owed to Hammer by the Harry Potter series. It takes about 5 minutes to adjust to his performance, and to get over his very conscious lowering of voice to appear older. But despite claims that he is too young for the part, he acquits himself perfectly well.
Radcliffe is ably supported by Ciaran Hinds as the unsettled Daily, and there is a welcome cameo from David Burke, best known from playing Dr. Watson alongside Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Liz White has the relatively thankless task of playing The Woman in Black, a role which if done properly requires on her being seen as little as possible. But even in the few moments where she becomes hysterical, she remains convincing and very frightening.
The Woman in Black may be old-school and old-fashioned to the hilt, but it is still a very creepy and occasionally very scary effort which mostly does justice to Susan Hill's novel. Daniel Radcliffe give a very encouraging performance,, and Watkins' adept direction confirms him as a horror director to watch. It isn't perfect by any means, playing to convention to a fault and being a little too slow in places. But whether as an example of good genre filmmaking or the continuing value of ghost stories, it warms your heart while tingling your spine. 

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A good old-fashioned ghost story


  1. Exceptional review Daniel, very detailed and well-written, this is one film on my must see list! Thanks.

  2. You're welcome Danny, thanks for commenting

  3. Nice review, I have been meaning to check this out despite my wussness when it comes to horror films.

    enjoyed checking out your site as well


  4. Thanks Adam :) Be sure to subscribe/ follow!


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