The Woman in Black-attachment0

The Woman in Black

Movie Information

The Story: An attorney assigned to settle an estate finds himself up against inhospitable locals and a creepy old house that would play on anyone's nerves. But there's more at work here than just his imagination. The Lowdown: A classic and classy old-fashioned ghost story built on atmosphere, a strong premise, well-timed scares and solid, serious performances by all concerned.
Score:

Genre: Haunted-House Horror
Director: James Watkins (Eden Lake)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Mary Stockley, Cathy Sara
Rated: PG-13

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.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

20 thoughts on “The Woman in Black

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    The nature of the Daniel Radcliffe character and especially the ending reminded me a lot of a little known 1997 British film called PHOTOGRAPHING FAIRIES.

  2. Xanadon't

    I could take or leave a Hammer revival. I’m more excited to see that James Watkins has seemingly made good on the promise he showed with Eden Lake. (If you haven’t seen it- A viscous and gristly take on vacation-gone-wrong horror that’s effective and pretty chilling in its strong ‘the kids aren’t alright’ message. Not a terrible place to direct “Those looking for something in the Hostel or Saw vein” actually, as it is pretty good.)

    Obviously The Descent 2 which came in between was never destined for shining success, so I was willing to forgive Watkins for that one, and now I’m excited to see this.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I haven’t seen Eden Lake, but I understand this one is in a very different tone. I would, in any case, suggest you see it.

  4. arlened

    Very wise to pause for the wrath of Hammer fans.

    Since I haven’t seen it yet, I don’t know if we should have been allowed a minute or an hour of venom.

  5. Xanadon't

    Check. While I enjoyed it I wouldn’t say I’m ready to put it on a par with Changeling or The Others either- and I’m pretty confident I never will be. But those certainly are two pretty tough movies to measure up to. Simply mentioning The Woman in Black in the same sentence is pretty high praise in itself.

    Radcliffe was surprisingly (at least to someone who hasn’t seen HP 3 thru… whatever) good in it, though he wore the more or less same expression for much of the film. Some of this of course can be attributed to the fact that he spends a good deal of screen-time alone (well, not exactly alone, of course). But even so, his character wasn’t afforded all that much emotional range. Measuring up to George C. Scott’s performance was probably never realistic though anyway. And Kidman’s performance in The Others is a thing of beauty, and it’s the type of arresting performance that actually works as the backbone for much of the creepy, atmospheric elements at work around her.

    But the tone was great, the setting excellent, and the story suitably quaint/tragic/chilling/classic. Yep, very good ghost-story movie.

  6. Dionysis

    Four stars is a bit higher than what I’ve seen from other sources, but all reviews have been at least mildly positive. I guess I’ll have to see it myself, maybe this weekend.

    There is a reason why the 1989 British telemovie is “highly prized.” It will be interesting to see if this version (and a significant difference between the two is probably reflected in your aversion to revealing more of the plot) is regarded as such 23 years up the road as well.

    Of course, I won’t be around to find out unless I live to be very, very, very old. Or walk the earth as a disembodied spirit.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I understand from Chip Kaufmann who knows the 1989 film that this one is indeed very different. Apparently, it better reflects the source novel, since the author likes the new film and seriously didn’t like the 1989 version.

    • Dionysis

      That’s really interesting; I was unaware. Well, in spite of the author’s view of the 1989 film, those who are familiar with it seem to have a different opinion.

      The DVD of that version, long out-of-print, is going for $125 and up (if you can even find it). Thank goodness I bought mine years ago at a reasonable price (but I wouldn’t sell it for twice the going rate).

  8. Ken Hanke

    Well, in spite of the author’s view of the 1989 film, those who are familiar with it seem to have a different opinion.

    Of that I have no doubt, but then the author is bound to be coming at any film of it with a somewhat protective mindset. That doesn’t, of course, mean that this one is better, only closer to her book.

  9. Chip Kaufmann

    According to the author Susan Hill, what she wanted to do in the book was to recreate the Victorian ghost stories of M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu which is preisely what this film does. You can throw in Bram Stoker as well as there are some similarities to Jonathan Harker in the Radcliffe character.

    Nigel Kneale of QUATERMASS fame who did the BBC-TV adaptation, was from that generation of “angry young men” writers like John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He revamps the original and adds political and social content to the story. He even changes the names of the characters to make it more clearly his. No wonder Hill didn’t like it. It is extremely effective in its own right with one standout shock scene but it is very different.

    For anyone interested in the 1989 version it should be noted that the current DVD is just copied from the VHS version which actually looks better so if you can still handle VHS you’ll save a lot of money and have an easier time getting a copy.. Hopefully the success of the new version will finally allow the old one to have a proper DVD release that won’t be Region 2 only.

    • Dionysis

      Thanks for providing this detail. In my opinion, there are two standout shock scenes in the film, both occurring towards the end of the film (including the final scene, of course).

      I am reminded of the ‘The Thing’ (From Another World) and Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. Each very different, one closer to Campbell’s story, but yet both effective films in their own right.

  10. Dionysis

    “the current DVD is just copied from the VHS version which actually looks better so if you can still handle VHS you’ll save a lot of money and have an easier time getting a copy..”

    Actually, I just spent a few minutes checking into the prices of both the DVD and VHS tapes. A used DVD is going from $104 up, a used videotape is going for $120 (but a new one is $109.95).

  11. Chip Kaufmann

    Wow! The DVD price is about the same but the VHS is now 5 times as expensive. Maybe those prices will go down now that the new version is out.

    The final scene in the 1989 film is very effective but I saw it coming. The earlier scene I did not and it still startles me today. There is a like minded scene in the new movie although it is different.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Very wise to pause for the wrath of Hammer fans.

    I’m braced.

  13. Dionysis

    Better late than never, I guess. I finally got around to watching this film and I pretty much agree with your review. I do think there were just a couple too many “sudden loud noises”, especially in the first third of the film.

    It was certainly atmospheric, and is among the better ghost stories I’ve seen translated to the big screen. However, I didn’t really care for the ending; the BBC production left a much more indelible image with its horrific ending, small screen production and small budget notwithstanding.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Well, you have the advantage on me on that point, since I’ve never seen the TV film.

  15. Dionysis

    Hey, I offered to give you a copy; in fact, if I can figure out how to burn a disc I’ll get it to you. I’d like to know your opinion on it in comparison.

    I watched The Woman in Black as part of a weekend haunted double-feature, the other title being one I missed from a few years back, Silent Hill. Boy, were you ever right in describing it as a “modern gem” among horror films. Some of the creepiest and most unforgettable imagery I’ve seen in a movie. To be honest, I thought it was the more powerful film, weaknesses and all. I’d watch it again, but am not sure about The Woman in Black.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Well, if I had it at hand I’d watch it.

    Oh, I much prefer Silent Hill, which I must have watched at least half a dozen times when it was in theaters. (Of course, I was still working of some apparent karmic burden by working for Carmike Cinemas, so I was often killing time.)

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