Hammer Films has been releasing new films for a while now, but none so far have had that ?Hammer? feel fans associate with the classic horror brand. That is until now. ?The Woman In Black? is Hammer at its classic-movie best, chills and tingles, interesting plot and a whole heap of tension (but not a heaving bosom in sight, sadly!)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first major role post-Potter, the film is based on Susan Hill?s popular novel, and tells the tale of a young lawyer who travels to a remote village to deal with the affairs of an old client who has passed away. However, the village is less than welcoming, and soon he discovers the people are being terrorized by the vengeful ghost of a ?woman in black?. The film also features Janet McTeer and Ciaran Hinds, but the real stars are the chills.
I?ve never really enjoyed so-called chillers as they never seem to chill me. Films that purport to ?scare? an audience just don?t scare me. I think it is something to do with the inability to suspend disbelief long enough to build up a sense of dread. Just about all these films fail to engage with their characters, locations or plots. Usually they either bore me or make me laugh (yes, I am one of those people who laugh at horror films?they just make me giggle, and not in a nervous way!) So I came to ?The Woman In Black? with a sense of uninspired ?meh?. I?ve read the book and seen the play and neither grabbed me as anything special. Not to do them down, they are both entertaining and worth laying down some hard cash on, but I don?t understand the near-universal love affair the rest of the country has with them. That said, Susan Hill writes very well and has used a classic British ghost tale to create a solid modern (well, Victorian) spooky story that is so much more than a vengeful-spirit-on-a-rampage tale.
So, to the movie. While the original book is a little turgid in its use of ?ye olde Victorian language?, the movie sticks with a more modern use of English and it is to the film-makers? credit, as it gives the film a much more accessible tone from the start. The costumes and locations are Victorian enough to give us the setting, the actors are therefore able to focus on engaging our interest in their story. This also immediately raises the film above the Hammer history?a no-cheese-zone as one friend put it. This is a film that gets on with things, no waiting, no fluff. I appreciate a story that moves on quickly. So, we start in London with Radcliffe being told he has one last chance to redeem himself by heading off to the wilds to deal with the paperwork of the dead client. He?s had a rough time of it, with his young wife dying in childbirth a few years before?understandably the poor chap is not quite himself. But before you know it he is saying goodbye to his son and the nanny and zooming up north via the Hogwarts Express/GNER. Getting the hero to the key location so quickly does the film favours, as it means more screen-time for the spooky shenanigans later on. Once in the unwelcoming village Daniel heads off to the old mansion in the marshes and very quickly begins to see the spectre of the mysterious woman in black. And this is where the film makes the jump from so-so to superb. There is a palpable feeling of tension building, of mystery and suspense. You never feel scared but you certainly feel uneasy. The glimpses of the spectre are handled with aplomb, with occasional jump-scares, but mostly with excellent use of misdirection and sound. It is interesting that Daniel?s character is never afraid of the apparition, as he is desperately hoping to be reunited with his dead wife. He sees the ghost as an opportunity to find out if he can find his wife again. And so, with the hero never truly scared, we as an audience are never really frightened. And this is the genius stroke, because by doing away with an expectation of fear, we are allowed instead to enjoy a slow-burn tension. We are fascinated by this spectre and the other ghosts he sees. We are as curious and wary of the odd sounds and strangeness within the old mansion, but we want to see what is going on as much as Daniel?s character does. Our senses are heightened and our nerves are primed. When the ?event? moments occur they don?t terrify but they do force a surge of adrenaline through our systems. Goose-bumps and raised hairs everywhere! And so much of this is down to timing, sleight-of-hand camera tricks, excellent sound design and a beautiful use of colour and shadow. Take note horror directors?we don?t always need to see the ?monster? up close and in HD detail. Suggestion and subtlety work extremely well. Director James Watkins excels in creating a tone of malevolence and anger, while holding back from terror and fear, a real achievement.
So far so good. But I do have complaints. As much as Daniel Radcliffe does a good job as Arthur Kipps, he doesn?t ?own? the role. As I watched I felt that any capable actor could have taken on the role and given as good a performance. There feels no need for it to be Radcliffe. He doesn?t bring anything unique or compelling to the role. That said, he is very good and has mastered the art of facial-acting. This is a largely dialogue-free movie, with a lot resting on the physical acting of the lead, and Radcliffe manages this impressively. Then there is the matter of his age. I know it has been talked about a lot, but Radcliffe just looks a bit too young for the character. He is supposed to have a 4/5 yr old son, but Daniel still looks 20 or 21. Surely he didn?t get married at 14 or 15? And he is also supposed to be a young but experienced lawyer, which means he would need to be in his mid-twenties at least. The one thing Radcliffe cannot do is change his youthful appearance, and sadly for me it did distract. An actor aged 25-30 would have made that much more sense. Then again, Hammer needed a BIG name lead to get the press attention they so desperately wanted, and for such a well-known book a famous lead is pretty much a must. I won?t take away from Daniel a good job done well. But I do think he is interchangeable with any number of other actors.
All in all ?The Woman In Black? is a superb film that will offer you an almost traditional movie experience, but with the added bonus of modern film techniques. The lack of Hammer-horror cheese, the superb visual and audio presentation, coupled with the clever use of tension and suspense all add up to make this a brilliant film. The ending is unusual, but oh-so-British and will make you reconsider the motivation of the central spirit. Is this the start of a renaissance for old-school chillers? I doubt it. The source material is certainly there to mine, but I fear few directors, and fewer studios, have the patience and nerve to do such films. This could be the niche market Hammer has been looking for. Steer clear of the rip-off teenagers in peril themes, and stick with intelligent, suspenseful chillers and they?ll be on to a winner.