The Woman in Black is the latest film from the newly opened Hammer studio, following the modern-day set The Resident and Wake Wood. This time, the film is more in line with the Hammer horrors of old, featuring as it does a period setting, an old haunted house with a sinister ghost and a Gothic sensibility.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a recently bereaved single parent who finds it difficult to reconnect with his life and his son. When he is threatened with a sacking, Kipps is more eager than ever to get down to work and to put the past behind him. As a solicitor, he is sent to a remote Northern village to investigate a disputed will. It is not long before Kipps experiences opposition from the secretive locals, all of whom would rather he went away, except Daily (Ciarán Hinds). Daily suggests that the town is caught up in a silly local superstition. Kipps arrives at an old house, once owned by an old woman with a dark family history. Before long, he starts to see strange visions of a woman in black both inside and outside the house, just as the village starts to experience a series of sinister accidents, all involving children.
The Woman in Black is a ghost story about a vengeful woman holding a small village to ransom. As it is, it isn’t anything particularly new and the Hammer trappings merely serve to keep it old-fashioned and slightly out of step. However, in consideration of all the Saw and, now, Paranormal Activity sequels clogging up the multiplexes, an old-style ghost story feels like a breath of fresh air. And, after all, many of the old Hammer horrors are still very good.
In keeping with these older films, The Woman in Black avoids using the modern gimmicks. There is, thankfully, no 3-D and the film is free of in-jokes and irony. The film doesn’t use very much CGI and the gore is kept to a level required for a 12A rating. What it does have, however, are jumps. In fact, the film relies almost solely on jumps to achieve its effect. As a result, the first half hour of set-up is full of loud birds bursting out of chimneys and unpredictable clogged-up sinks. When the woman in black first appears, the film seems to promise that the jumps are over and that the chills from thereon will be less overt and predictable. But they aren’t. The film largely drops atmospherics (the very thing that made so many of the older Hammer still work today), packed instead with so many jumps that you become somewhat desensitised to them. Even a few cleverly constructed or imaginative ones pass by without much notice as another, duller jump quickly follows. They are so constant that you can’t help but think that the woman in black is not dangerous at all and is merely tormenting poor Kipps for her own amusement. In fact, one sequence in which the woman makes a lot of noise in a locked room, driving Kipps to run downstairs for an axe, only to open it for him when he returns, gives the impression of a ghost with a mischievous sense of humour. This isn’t particularly helped by the film’s insistence that old toys are terrifying if covered in cobwebs and lit from below.
The film’s other problem is the casting of Daniel Radcliffe. Though he is much better here than his bland incarnation of a well-known boy wizard, he is playing a character that should be at least ten years older than he is. Seeing Radcliffe with someone who is supposed to be his son at the film’s beginning proves to be distracting. However, Radcliffe turns out a good performance, one that offer hope that some day he might come out from under the shadow of his previous big role. In one scene, Radcliffe has to swim through a huge amount of mud and, for some reason, you find yourself willing on Radcliffe the actor rather than Kipps the solicitor. Maybe because Radcliffe seems so desperate to prove himself as an actor.
Not without its moments, The Woman in Black can be imaginatively directed and well written, despite an emphasis on jumps over atmospherics. It is also a horror film with characters that it is easy to care about, which has become increasingly rare. And, like all those old Hammer films, it is very entertaining.