Directed by James Watkins
After relaunching in 2010 with the promise of delivering classic style horror films for modern genre-loving audiences, Hammer (which is the specialty genre label of its parent company, Exclusive Media) has once again hit a home run with its latest output, The Woman in Black, which thankfully delivers a chilling tale of love, loss and terror all while keeping true to Susan Hill’s brilliant source material, which should no doubt please both lovers of the original story as well as the longtime Hammer fans out there.
For those who may be unfamiliar with Hill’s original tale, in The Woman in Black we meet Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a troubled young solicitor who is sent from London to the small village of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow.
Kipps is struggling with grief, debt and the care of his four-year-old son following his wife’s death in childbirth, and it is clear both he and his work have been suffering since her passing. We find out that this assignment is Arthur’s last chance with the firm, and if he cannot get the job done, he’s out in the cold with no way to support his young son.
When he arrives in Crythin Gifford, Kipps finds the locals peculiarly unwelcoming – almost as if they are trying to get rid of him. Undeterred, Kipps knows if he doesn’t finish up Mrs. Drablow’s affairs, it will mean the end of his career so he presses on, warnings be damned. Kipps finds a kinship while in the mysterious town with the kindhearted Mr. Daily (Hinds), a local landowner who doesn’t believe in the same superstition his neighbors do and offers assistance to Kipps, inviting the traveling businessman into his home and offering him the use of his automobile when needed.
Once he begins working through the papers in Eel Marsh House, Kipps starts seeing a mysterious woman dressed all in black lurking around the graveyard and in the shadows of the creepy Eel Marsh house, which eventually leads to Kipps’ discovery of the dark secret that has terrorized the people of Crythin Gifford for many years now. It turns out that some years earlier, Mrs. Drablow’s son died tragically in the marsh, and due to the hazardous conditions his young body was never recovered. Ever since that tragic day, the parents of Crythin Gifford have had to suffer through losing their children in often nightmarish fashion. Now desperate to finish his work before the arrival of his own son and his nanny, Kipps elects to spend the night at Eel Marsh so he can finish his work faster and then he and his son can avoid the vengeful wrath of The Woman in Black.
Fans of the book should already be able to guess from that synopsis that screenwriter Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) has taken some liberties with Hill’s original plot for this feature film adaptation of The Woman in Black, which may aggrieve the purists out there, but to her credit it is clear from Goldman’s work here that she and director James Watkins have decided to stay true to the essence of why fans have loved this story for so long and masterfully craft a well-oiled ghost story for modern audiences’ sensibilities from the material. The changes work and allow the story to breathe a bit as well as make for some great dramatic material for the cast.
For a second time at bat, director Watkins has made incredible strides since his debut film Eden Lake, which was a solid effort but nonetheless a very ugly and disturbing portrait of violence and madness; Watkins’ work on The Woman in Black couldn’t feel any different than his previous efforts and shows that he can create this incredibly immersive and saturated palette of colors without the movie ever feeling like an over-stylized fantasy flick. Watkins takes great care in building tension and establishing atmosphere while allowing The Woman in Black to move at a contemporary pace without ever sacrificing character and mood along the way, which is no easy feat.
As the film’s main protagonist, Kipps, Radcliffe is finally stepping out in his first post-Harry Potter role, and even though I’m not much of a Potter fan myself, he completely sheds that persona in The Woman in Black and demonstrates he’s ready to transition his career toward taking on more adult roles. Although in reality Radcliffe may be a bit on the young side to be playing a bereaved husband and father, the 22-year-old proves with his performance that he has the chops to handle the raw emotion that’s central to his character, appearing desolate and haunted before he even sets one foot inside the doomed Eel Marsh House.
After all, it’s Kipps’ battle with his own personal demons that drives the story in The Woman in Black with the synergy between the supernatural occurrences at the house and Kipps’ fragmented psyche providing essential dramatic ground to do battle back and forth while viewers look on. It’s riveting and haunting material, the likes of which you don’t see too often in theaters these days (sadly).
My only minor complaint about The Woman in Black is that the villagers of Crythin Gifford are often thinly written characters; what I love about movies like Hot Fuzz or Hammer’s 2011 flick Wake Wood is that in these kinds of settings, you always meet a handful of colorful characters, and other than Mr. Daily and his grieving wife, played by Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated actress McTeer, none of the other residents really struck a chord with me, and I would have loved to have gotten more back story from them.
But overall it’s Watkins’ complete understanding of what makes The Woman in Black such a popular story for some thirty years now and his complete respect for Hill’s original work that allow this latest adaptation to succeed. And despite many people’s reservations about releasing a turn-of-the-century horror tale for modern audiences, Watkins and his leading man Radcliffe have both succeeded in making a truly haunting classic ghost story that is also an effective modern horror film without ever needing to rely on CGI or intrusive music cues.
And while many hardened genre audiences may not enjoy the subtlety and slow-burn approach of the film, classic horror fans who have been clamoring for more from the esteemed Hammer House of Horror will no doubt find The Woman in Black to be a scream once it arrives in theaters this Friday, February 3rd.
4 out of 5