The Woman in Black (2012) review

Looking back now, I think I must have seen my first “Hammer Horror” as a 12-year-old, when their trademark Gothic horror films from the 1950s and 1960s were shown as part of our town’s Saturday afternoon “Creature Feature” series. Hammer films such as HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) were my first exposure to fright films, and for me it was absolutely love at first sight!

I simply couldn’t get enough of a menacing Christopher Lee or of those marvelous Hammer sets, with their flickering candles, creeping shadows and creaking floorboards. No one knew how to set the tone for scares like Hammer Films did. You could be certain that every journey up a dark staircase would end in delicious chills, and that something unspeakably horrible would be lurking behind every suspiciously locked door.

So I was thrilled when I learned a few years ago that Hammer Films was getting back into production again, and especially pleased when they announced plans for a remake of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012). I’d read Susan Hill’s scary 1983 novel and seen the affecting 1989 TV miniseries, and I’d even watched a marvelously creepy production of the stage play, so I couldn’t help but hope that Hammer would infuse some of their old-fashioned visual style and atmosphere into the newest incarnation of the story.

In that particular regard, my wishes were granted beyond my wildest dreams. THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a visual feast for the eyes of every old school horror fan. It is chock full of moody set decoration, gloomy period atmosphere and the most exquisitely designed lighting, shadows, and sound effects. The house, the marsh, the costumes, the cinematography, the music; all are carefully crafted to set the perfect stage for a traditional gothic horror tale.

And the tale itself, mildly reworked to incorporate a few new twists, is indeed a scary one. A widowed lawyer named Arthur Kipps is sent to the small town of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of one late Mrs. Alice Drablow. There he discovers a community living in fear of the spectre of woman attired in black mourning, whose fleeting appearances always herald death. Kipps takes it upon himself to discover the secret of the woman in black’s identity and her reasons for seeking dreadful revenge, and although he ends up finding the answers in the marshes surrounding moldy old Eel Marsh House, he also finds that he is not immune to the ghost’s curse.

With marvelous direction by James Watkins, a decent ghost story, and excellent haunted house atmosphere, the only real flaw I could find in the film was the choice of Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. As practically everyone on the planet knows, Radcliffe was cast as Harry Potter when he was 11 years old, and inhabited that role in the HP universe for the next 10 years. Even though I am not a Potter aficionado, having only read the first book under duress and seen just two of the movies, I really have no problem with Radcliffe as an actor. It’s simply that, now 21, he looks far too young to be a working lawyer as well as the father of a 4-year-old as is called for in this movie. And unfortunately, the one-note role does not allow Radcliffe to exhibit an emotional range much beyond fear or puzzlement, so although he does well with what is written, he is not called upon to develop his character beyond that. There exists a very fleeting introduction at the beginning of the film that I think could have been elaborated on, and which might have given the character more depth. This casting is not terrible flaw, but an older actor might have been a better fit. Radcliffe’s fame will certainly put tweens in the seats, however.

Although there are quite a few deaths in this film, there’s no gore, slashing, or even much blood spilled, so SAW fanboys will be disappointed. But for those in search of a good-looking thriller, with a delightfully old-fashioned creepiness that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up more than a few times, plus jump-in-your-seat frights, look no further. In that sense THE WOMAN IN BLACK fits the “Hammer Horror” mold beautifully. In fact, it’s just the sort of movie that will probably make some young kid fall in love with fright when they catch it on TV on some rainy Saturday afternoon in 10 year’s time.

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