The Woman in Black (2012)


Victorian gloom and doom

In James Watkins’ posh and tasteful horror movie The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds with Janet McTeer, David Burke and Shaun Dooley, a young lawyer called Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), threatened with being fired if he fails at this mission, is sent out from London to go over the documents in a country mansion where somebody has recently died. Lots of children die, Kipps himself falls under a terrible spell. It turns out the countryside is being terrorized by the raging spirit of a dead woman who was once scorned. Watkins holds your attention and leaves you filled with a helpless sense of gloom. And he does so without any of the gore or violent effects horror movies revel in these days. That’s a plus, but this winds up feeling more like a skillful exercise than the raw stuff of bad dreams.

Radcliffe seems stalwart and vulnerable; it’s easy to identify with him. Isn’t he Harry Potter, after all? He’s winning and attractive. You want to hug him. Unfortunately, he is not a very strong or individual personality, and his passivity ultimately makes him too much of a cipher here. Right in the middle of the most intense scenes you keep noticing that he looks good in the fitted Victorian vest. He’s a clothes horse with nice eyebrows. His chief ally is the richest man around, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds). Hinds’ big tall form and sad, slack face, magnified by being placed in each frame next to the small Radcliffe, seems perfect for the role, yet he too seems mainly to be wearing the loose suits and floppy coat to go with the big old car he drives. The locations, sets, and costumes are really more impressive than anything that happens. This is a movie all dressed up and nowhere to go. But it’s still a visual pleasure most of the way and it draws on classic sources, and has classy cousins.

Kipps’ arrival at the big dark house surrounded by misty marshland with a dangerous tide and overgrown with vines and brambles parallels real estate agent Hutter’s unforgettably terrifying trip to Count Orlock’s castle in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, based on Dracula. There are probably borrowings from James’ Turn of the Screw and the 1961 movie version, where ghosts are after the children being cared for by Deborah Kerr. Mood and setting may also owe a debt to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Alejandro Amenabar’s equally fine-looking The Others. A toney Spanish horror film, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, similarly has a big haunted place and ghost children. First of all this movie has a derivative but very successful source, the Victorian-Gothic pastiche novel from the Eighties by Susan Hill, which became a TV movie and one of the longest running plays in London theatrical history. This script adaptation by Jane Goldman, who wrote the funnier and sprightlier screenplays for Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, ups the child body count and gives Kipps a dead wife (Sophie Stuckey), leaving his little boy vulnerable.

Because The Woman in Black’s scares are not constant and violent like the coming Silent House, starring Elizabeth Olsen — where the effects are so heavy there’s little need for atmosphere or setting — when a shiver or jolt arrives, it’s usually a truly felt one.

But this movie has a complicated explanation that never quite gets integrated with the front and center action of young Kipps and the sad and hopeful Daily. (Janet McTeer, who is the best thing in Albert Nobbs, provides authenticity again as Daily’s disturbed wife.) Why does none of this quite work for me? Neither did The Orphanage or Sleepy Hollow. It’s partly the too-heavy reliance on period setting, costume, and paraphernalia, which can become cloying and stand in the way of authentic feeling. Partly it’s the cliched premise (also found in many other current scary movies): the haunted house.

Granted, this is a humdinger of a haunted house. Its rich visual detail, thanks to production designer Kave Quinn and an inspired props person, could be the background for a work by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, the artist who did the oozing, moldy “after” version of the movie Picture of Dorian Gray. If this was a fun house ride I’d pay plenty for a ticket. But a fun house ride is what it is. As has been remarked, the antique toys in the house and the old music boxes come to life, but Daniel Radclife doesn’t.

I prefer the original J-horror of the other, younger Kurosawa, Kiyoshi, whose Cure and Pulse are masterpieces of uneasy dread. In Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the visuals are neat and spooky, but it’s the action that counts, and that’s cinematic. Watkins owes a dept to J-horror films like Ringu for its figures that fade scarily in and out, but has not drawn on any Asian filmmakers as creative as Kurosawa.

Certainly a pseudo-Victorian horror show, of which this is a good example, appeals to people though. And if it does, there are reasons. These lie in superstition, a belief in spirits, particularly malevolent ones — and a justifiable feeling that such things flourished more at the time of Edgar Allen Poe.  People were more pious and folk myth and irrationality found more fertile ground. This was an era when more children died young than now. Kipps himself has a four-year-old (Misha Handley) whom he must raise with a nanny because his young wife died in childbirth. It’s not like we today have no awareness of evil: it’s in today’s news. But a certain audience likes the old trappings, that’s for sure. They provide a different world many audience members can sink into imaginatively and let their worst fears and wildest fantasies fly freely.

In other words, a run-down Victorian mansion is a safe place to be scared, because we’ll never live in one. David Foster Wallace showed in Infinite Jest that the scariest things are really microwaves and garbage disposals — and the scariest place is inside our own heads.

We can’t tell you how The Woman in Black ends, but it’s one of those tricky ones that seems happy but then might be terribly, terribly sad. I wish they’d made up their mind. But for me the very real horror of this movie is that the young man has a really terrible assignment to do and he must stick with it because if he doesn’t he’ll lose his job. And of course that provides Kipps with the motivation to sit through his haunted house ordeal, when otherwise he might have taken the first train back to London.

Woman in Black opens in the UK 10th February.


Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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