The Woman in Black

The Haunted House is one of the most well established ideas in the world of fright.  Who can forget the long and terrifying halls of The Shining?  Or the ever present harassment of the Freeling family in Poltergeist?  Hell, even the kind-hearted Maitland’s got in on the act in Beetle Juice.  Haunted houses in film are a great opportunity to provide chills for an audience.  But one element that makes them stand out is that unlike your Jason Voorhees or your Michael Myers, the “villain” in a haunted house flick is usually a sympathetic person who needs the help of the living to right a wrong done unto them in life.   Through the actions of the hero, the true reason behind the hauntings is exposed and the ghosts are freed of their earthly prison.  This week, Daniel Radcliffe puts on his best suit and sideburns and step through the rusty gate to unlock the secrets of The Woman in Black.

Attorney Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young widower and single father in Victorian-era London, is sent to a small township in northern England to go through the paperwork of the recently-passed occupants of a terrifying manor.  As soon as he arrives in town, Arthur begins seeing the stigma attached to the home.  With the exception of Sam Daily (a very long-faced Ciaran Hinds), the townspeople are reluctant to speak with Arthur, save for the occasional warning about the evil of the old house on the outskirts of town.  The ghost, it seems, has spent a significant amount of time causing the deaths of the town’s younger residents in gruesome and terrifying ways.  When Arthur finally finds his way up the mansion, its easy to see why the townsfolk so readily associate the house with horror.

The home is situated on an island that sits so low in a marsh that it can only be reached at certain times of the day as high tide swallows the path to the house for hours at a time, leaving a single wooden cross poking out of the water as the only evidence of the single lane road connecting the manor to the city .  Ivy has swallowed the rod iron gates whole and the crumbling walls of the Victorian facade seem to promise doom to all those who enter.  Undeterred by the warnings of the terrified townspeople, Arthur marches into the house to do his job.  As he pours over the records in the old manor, Arthur begins to uncover the truth behind the former residents, that ominous cross and the legend of the titular woman in black.  As day turns to night, the normal creaks and groans of the mansion turn far more ominous, forcing Arthur to right the wrongs of the past or lose his own son to the curse of the house.

The Woman in Black marks Daniel Radcliffe’s first film since hanging up his wand as Harry Potter.  Through those films, we saw Radcliffe grow from boy into young adult, but he still doesn’t quite seem to be a man.  Although he tries to sell it by letting his facial hair grow out a bit as the film progresses, Radcliffe’s cherubic face still seems a bit too innocent to be the father of a four year old boy.  It doesn’t help that the village is primarily populated by men and woman that are all on the other side of middle aged, making him look younger by comparison.  Though his performance is fine, it’s hard to take him seriously because he feels too young for the part.

Seriously, this thing creepy me right the fuck out.

Luckily, Radcliffe’s Arthur gets second billing to the house itself, a wise choice by the director, James Watkins.  Watkins smartly navigates the film away from being a character study and into full on Haunted House mode.  Instead of putting all of the focus on Arthur, the camera locks in tight on the details that make the house so creepy.  Grinning wind up monkeys, frightening zoetropes and a clown music box with unsettlingly realistic eyes do far more to sell the film then Radcliffe, or any actor for that matter,  ever could.  Aided with a score by the under appreciated but wonderfully brilliant Marco Beltrami, Watkins weaves a tale that, although feeling a bit like the plot line to the next Silent Hill game, works very well.

In a world where horror films have been overtaken by the found footage style, it’s nice to see a film that is unafraid to deliver some old-fashioned scares.  While not without its faults, The Woman in Black is an agreeable addition to the haunted house films that preceded it.

RATING:  7/10

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~ by Andrew Craig on February 8, 2012.

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