Thursday, April 5, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Woman in Black

 The Woman in Black is the highly anticipated prequel to Frank Laloggia's 1988 thriller Lady in White. Wait? It's not? Oh... that actually makes more sense then. It's actually a film presented from the revamped Hammer Films and is the first post-Harry Potter appearance of Daniel Radcliffe in theatres*. It's a stylish, atmospheric ghost story that does remind one of Hammer's "gothic" reputation from the 1950s and 60s. While it has some minor issues, I have to say that I enjoyed The Woman in Black and found parts of it to be quite creepy.

 Albert Kipps (Radcliffe) is a solicitor and widower at the turn of the twentieth century. Haunted by memories of the death of his wife (Sophie Stuckey) during childbirth, Kipps has had difficulty paying his debts and is on thin ice with the law firm he works for. He is sent north to settle the Eel Marsh House and the estate of Alice Drablow, and despite the warnings of nearly everyone in the adjoining village, he travels to the abandoned manor to retrieve her papers. Slowly but surely, Arthur comes to realize he isn't alone in the house, and that the specter of a woman dressed in black isn't simply interested in haunting him. No, the titular character has her sights set on vengeance on all of the children of the village, due in no small part to a wrong visited on her by the Drablows and a tragedy involving their son.

 The Woman in Black opens with an ominous sign of things to come: three sisters are playing with their dolls when, for reasons unclear, something off camera they can see (but the audience cannot) wills them to walk, side by side, out of the window and to their deaths. Before we've met our hero or have any idea why this might be happening, we have some idea of the threat posed to children in the film. Child endangerment is an effective tool in horror, as are fog shrouded islands, dusty, dark old houses, and creepy dolls / toys. The setting is appropriate because it isolates Arthur as soon as he arrives: the telephone hasn't made it north yet and when he desperately needs to prevent his own son  (Misha Handley) from arriving, a supernaturally influence fire prevents him from being able to send a telegram.

 The only person in town who has a car is Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a man who remains skeptical about anything "haunting" Eel Marsh House, even though he and his wife Elizabeth (Janet McTeer) lost their son under mysterious circumstances. Even as Arthur's presence in the village, traveling back and forth from the manor, causes more tragic deaths of children (in horrible ways like ingesting lye or self immolation), Daily remains unconvinced of any ghostly interference. Arthur, on the other hand, becomes more convinced that the Woman in Black is tied to all of this, just as the villagers warned him. He decides to solve the mystery surrounding the ghost when several revelatory documents appear around the house. That is, if she doesn't have plans for him first...

 One of the things that works so effectively for The Woman in Black is the Eel Marsh House itself: it's situated on the other side of a, well, a marsh, and during high tide the estate becomes an island, separating Arthur from any assistance until the waters subside. It raises the tension, in part, because the ghost isn't beholden to any type of day, and what Arthur doesn't know about her is the source of the chills early in the film. As the film transitions from "haunted house" to "supernatural mystery" and we learn more about who the people who lived in that home, the film loses its footing a little bit, but still remains creepy.

 If I had to point to a weakness in the film, it would be fair to note that the resolution to the "ghost" story is a bit of a cheat: you can think of it as a variation on what happens in The Ring in the third act, but The Woman in Black doesn't quite resolve itself as well. It's a thematically appropriate ending, I'll give it that, but considering the highly efficient buildup I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed at the ending. It also raised a larger question which is moderately SPOILER-ish: if the Woman in Black is able to kill the children of other villagers when anyone sees her, and Alice Drablow lived in the house where Arthur sees the ghost repeatedly until her death, how are there any children left in the village?

 This is a minor nitpick, but I can't help but feel that The Woman in Black could have reached its conclusion without the fake resolution followed by a rushed "twist," followed by an abrupt ending.

 Honestly, even with those minor points, I highly recommend The Woman in Black. It has a similar atmosphere to The Haunting or The Others and relies less on "jump" scares and more on the audience slowly noticing details in the background that Arthur does not. When things cut loose later in the film, it still manages to balance quick shocks with mounting tension, interspersed with hallucinatory dream sequences, flashbacks, and visuals. Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds are both very good as the co-leads of the film, and Janet McTeer makes an impact in just a few scenes as the traumatized victim of the ghost. While I do wish that writer Jane Goldman and director James Watkins had spent more time with the closing of the story (which reorganizes some of the narrative of Susan Hill's novel of the same name), I still feel that many horror fans will appreciate The Woman in Black's "old school" approach to generating scares.

 Postscript: Hammer Films have announced they are planning a sequel to the film, set forty years later with different protagonists. I suppose it could work in a World War II setting (although it's going to provide even more tonal and visual similarities to The Others), I'm not really sure this is a story that needs to continue. What keeps the narrative moving in The Woman in Black is the mystery surrounding Eel Marsh House, and there's not a lot left to discover in re-visitation of the manor. I'd prefer Hammer continue making other films, but then again, how many Dracula sequels starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or both were there?

* Okay, movie theatres. He'd been on Broadway with How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying for the better part of 2011.

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