Posted February 19, 2012 by D. K. Holm
Critics and publicists are touting The Woman in Black on several fronts: as Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Harry Potter movie, as the rebirth of Hammer Films, as a fine deal for its distributor CBS Films, which bought the distribution rights for $3 million dollars, and which as so far made around $45 million (advertising costs are unknown). What viewers will want to know, though, is if it is worth seeing. In the experience, The Woman in Black is on the one hand classy in that “British heritage” way, and and on the other, boring, with a side trade in child murder.
The set piece of the film is a long sequence in which Radcliffe investigates the tenantless mansion, He wanders silently, slowly through knick-knack cluttered rooms. “Things” move behind him, other “things” make sudden noises. The image is dark, the music ominous. Actors love these kinds of scenes; they are the only character on screen, and the camera is usually held closely on their face. But at the end of this sequence, Radcliff has discovered nothing new, and the audience is asleep.
The time is the early 1900s. Cars have been introduced to the English landscape and Arthur Conan Doyle is touting mediums. Radcliffe is (the annoyingly Brittishly or Dickensianly named) Arthur Kipps1, a struggling, widowed attorney with a son who has been assigned “one final case,” to settle the estate of a Mrs. Alice Drablow who lived in Eel Marsh House. The first of the film’s four parts chronicles the traditional journey from city to country wherein Kipps is shown hostility by the locals. Kipps is fortunate enough to meet the local rich eccentric Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds) who explains to him and to the viewer the lay of the land. In essence, the “haunting” is in ghostly form of a child murderer, her practices affecting also Mrs. Daily (Janet McTeer, currently Oscar nominated for another film), though it takes a while to grasp that information. In the climax, Kipps has returned home, but at the last second the malevolent spirit spirit reaches out and threatens both Kipps and his kid. Suffice it to say that Kipps and Kipps fis go to a better place where they are reunited with wife-mom.
The Woman in Black started out as a novel by Susan Hill (a TV writer), then became a play, and then a TV movie aired in 1989. Why this material has such a hold on the public, if indeed it does, is baffling. It is a concatenation of clichés and predicable shock tactics, with a bogus faith in spiritualism and a debased form of Christianity (we will all be reunited with our loved ones in heaven).
Though publicized as a “Hammer film,” it is so legally but in name only. Hammer horror had a particular look and pace, based on the use of the same sets repeatedly and by drawing upon the same small stock of writers and directors. More important, as shown by a dip into books on horror and Hammer by David Pirie and Kim Newman, Hammer never released a ghost story. They trafficked in remakes of Universal horror films and later witchcraft and sexed up vampiratrix tales. In fact, as Pirie points out interestingly, England did not have a tradition of horror films at all until Hammer came along, and Hollywood was left to first adapt the stories of Mary Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, and others. The Woman in Black is more like an uncanny tale by M. R. James, whose “Casting the Runes” was made into the memorable Night of the Demon. The Woman in Black caters to audience expectations, offering nothing new and little that is frightening or unsettling, beyond its contempt for our intelligence.
1 The character’s name is different in earlier iterations of the story.