What an amazing thing to go into a theater in 2012 and see an old-fashioned haunted-house/ghost-story movie. That, of course, is exactly what James Watkins’ The Woman in Black promised. That the film delivered on that promise—and did so without any modern frippery—is amazing. That people have actually gone to see it is more amazing still. I’m not saying that the movie is a refreshing return to the world of the non-CGI horror picture, because I’m quite sure that parts of the film—particularly the look of the film—owe much to modern technology. But its scares and horrors are largely of the old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts filmmaking variety. And there is no shaky-cam or found-footage codswallop to be found. That is refreshing.
The Woman in Black is a well-scripted, well-acted (yes, Daniel Radcliffe is very good in the lead, while Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer add to the tone) excursion into the realm of the ghost story. The story is horror-movie basic—young attorney Radcliffe is sent to an isolated, old, dark house to settle an estate. The locals—with what turns out be good reason—don’t want him there and are constantly trying to parcel him off to London. Naturally, he doesn’t go—otherwise there would be no movie—and, after a series of disasters and revelations, the grim secret of the house and the community comes to light. I really want to say no more about the plot, because it’s the sort of thing better experienced than to read about.
As cinematic ghost stories go, does The Woman in Black compare to Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980) or Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001)? On a single viewing, I’m inclined to say no, not quite. But time could change that—and I’d not be greatly surprised, because I like The Woman in Black more and more the further away I get from that one viewing. I cannot compare it to either the source novel or the highly prized 1989 Brit TV film, since I’m familiar with neither, so my take is strictly based on this version of the story.
Of course, hardcore horror fans of an encyclopedic bent will want to know if the film “does right” by the newly revived Hammer Films name. (Let’s face it, the name is the only thing that’s really been revived, so this is little more than a marketing gimmick.) Well, it certainly comes nearer than Let Me In (2010) did, but apart from being utterly British and a period piece, I didn’t find it particularly Hammer-esque. It certainly does nothing to tarnish the studio’s reputation, and it’s more solidly produced and atmospheric than most of the original Hammer’s output. (We should pause here for the wrath of Hammer fans.)
The film works mostly on the basis of a spooky premise and a creepy atmosphere that creates a sense of dread—punctuated, of course, by well-timed shock-effect scares. And on this score the film gets very high marks indeed. Yes, some will complain—indeed some have complained—that this is nothing more than making the audience jump by sudden loud noises and things entering the scene when you don’t expect them. Well, yes, because that’s how the genre works, but it only works if the film successfully builds the tension to those “boo!” moments and knows just when to use them. The Woman in Black does. Those who appreciate their horror on the atmospheric, chilly side will appreciate the film’s artistry. Those looking for something in the Hostel or Saw vein will be disappointed. You almost certainly know into which category you fall. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images.