May 24, 2012|
(UK/Canada) Horror/Drama. Directed by James Watkins. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer. Category IIB. 95 minutes. Opens May 24.
Gory slashers, faux documentaries, sci-fi thrillers and intellectual mind-benders—horror films today can be made in a hundred different innovative ways, which makes “The Woman in Black,” a square and straightforward haunted house tale set in the Victorian era, a rarity of old-school charm. Based on Susan Hill’s eponymous 1983 novel that was later adapted into the second longest-running West End play, this picture is the latest outing from Hammer Films, the home of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” and a dominant force in horror cinema in the 1950s which went bankrupt in 1979. Much like the studio’s recent resurrection, “Black” brings classic horror virtues back to the screen gracefully, and makes for a spine-chilling fun time at the movies.
Moving on from the 10-year run of “Harry Potter,” Daniel Radcliffe is in his first adult role playing widowed London lawyer Arthur Kipps, whose wife Stella died in childbirth four years ago. Still grieving over her passing, the doleful Arthur hasn’t been performing well at the law firm and is offered a last chance to redeem himself by settling the estate of a diseased woman in a remote Yorkshire village. Travelling solo to the sea mist-covered Crythin Gifford, Arthur’s faced with its hostile townsfolk, who want him gone. The client’s large, gloomy mansion, properly named Eel Marsh House, is located on a small island; its only connection to the mainland, a narrow causeway, is cut off several times a day by the rising tide. There, he sees frightening apparitions of a woman dressed in black.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”) makes thoughtful plot alterations to the original book, in which Arthur is a proper bachelor. Here, by making him the single father to toddler son Joseph, Goldman gives the audience a reason to believe that the man wouldn’t run away at the first sight of a vengeful ghost like normal people would. He persists in staying in the unnerving house to do his work, for his love for Joseph won’t allow him to lose his job.
The only friendly face is the county’s wealthiest man Sam Daily (a reliable Ciarán Hinds). Like many parents in the area, he lost his young child many years ago, and the incident drove his wife (Janet McTeer) to insanity. Despite the tragedy, Sam’s skeptical of the supernatural and warns Arthur to “not go chasing shadows,” which—you guessed it—is exactly what he does.
The major creep-fest takes place one night when Arthur stays up in the mansion going through legal documents. Be prepared for a textbook-like rundown of haunted house spooks, including dusty drapes, creaky floors and a zoetrope. In this long, wordless and hair-raising set-piece, Arthur holds a candle and investigates the hasty footfall echoing in the dark corridor, the wind-up toys moving by themselves and a rocking empty chair in the long abandoned nursery room. In the meantime, through piles of paper left around the house, Arthurs learns of a sad past that turned a young woman into a malevolent wraith that is menacing the whole town.
While it may be too big of a leap for Radcliffe to go from playing a boy wizard to portraying a father, the star—appearing in almost every scene—carries the movie capably with poise and aplomb. The film is the sophomore effort by director James Watkins, who made his wonderful debut in 2008 with the action-heavy horror film “Eden Lake.” In “Black,” Watkins employs a slower pace and a classier setting, but keeps his gift in making the viewers jump out of their seats. The score by two-time Oscar nominee Marco Beltrami and the eerie lensing by Tim Maurice-Jones complete this chiller, which, though doesn’t break new ground and grows a little repetitive in the second half, is handsome and effective. The surprising ending, which bears a poetic, gentle touch, is simply a beauty of yore, both visually and thematically.