The Woman in Black
2 1/2 Stars
Daniel Radcliffe could use some of that schoolboy wizardry about now: post-graduate life immediately after Hogwarts turns out to be ghastly and ghostly.
That's because he stars in the stylishly eerie, dramatically limited haunted-house flick, The Woman in Black, which offers Harry Potter's alter ego his first adult on-screen role. This supernatural horror melodrama is a remake of the 1989 film of (nearly) the same name, originally made for British television, that characterized itself in its marketing campaign as a "spine-chilling ghost story."
Radcliffe stars as a young lawyer named Arthur Kipps, a Victorian widower at the turn of the last century whose wife died during childbirth. Struggling to stay employed, he leaves his 4-year-old son with his nanny in London and travels to the isolated coastal village of Crythin Gifford to organize the papers and settle the legal affairs of a client, a reclusive widow.
When he arrives, he notices that the oddly unwelcoming and seemingly terrified townsfolk -- including Ciaran Hinds as a wealthy landowner and Janet McTeer as his grief-stricken wife -- seem to want him to turn around and leave. And he's told that the local community has been plagued by a mysterious rash of child deaths. The implication seems to be that this circumstance is somehow related to his client's remote dwelling.
When Arthur spends the night alone in the dilapidated mansion, he notices a ghoulish veiled figure walking in the graveyard, hears the screams of a drowning child, and sees children in distress wandering around. Then, after a series of unexplainable tragedies and suicides, he discovers that these children apparently died at the hands of the same person, and that it is the ghost of a scorned woman that is haunting this small English town by terrorizing its inhabitants.
Consequently, local villagers with children start barricading their kids indoors. But it doesn't help: whenever the titular apparition appears, a child dies.
So Arthur tries to put everything to rest by digging up her child's skeleton and burying it with his mother, even as he anticipates the arrival of his own son with his nanny.
In honoring the grand tradition of British horror, British director James Watkins (Eden Lake), displaying a strong directorial hand, takes a refreshingly old-fashioned approach to the frightening elements in his period ghost story -- all flickering candles and fluttering curtains and ominous shadows and creaking floorboards and slamming doors and even self-starting wind-up toys.
He forces the mood on us immediately, then introduces the horror features obliquely and subtly, utilizing sound and lighting to great effect and offering things we're not sure we're imagining in the background or at the edge of the frame, rather than focusing on them in closeup and jamming them down our collective throat. Consequently, we pay close attention and are vulnerable to the shock scares, especially the sounds, which he perhaps overuses.
But the "boo" moments are nonetheless intriguingly effective in sustaining the nail-biting tension, as Watkins demonstrates that you don't need explicit gore to disturb an audience or scare them silly, and that it's the apprehension and anticipation of horror that creates the suspense.
The gothic-horror screenplay by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, The Debt, X-Men: First Class) is loosely based on the 1983 pulp novel by Susan Hill, which itself was adapted into the second-longest-running play in West End history -- only Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has run longer.
Post-Potter Radcliffe, playing a single father, is nowhere near as well cast and comfortable in this part as he is in his signature role. But he holds his own in a movie that essentially uses the actors as director's props anyway.
As to the children-in-jeopardy thrust -- something that usually throws me off my movie-appreciating game -- here it is acceptably included because it's organic to the piece, exploiting every parent's greatest fear as a crucial suspense element.
When, after a string of legitimately eerie and scary moments, TWIB arrives at its conclusion -- not exactly a twist or a surprise, but certainly not a predictable development -- we wish it amounted to more of an explanation or rationale for what has gone before. But it doesn't negate the effectiveness of what has preceded it either.
The Woman in Black is a well-crafted things-that-go-bump-in-the nightmare.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images).
Running time: 1:36.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Arthur Kipps); Ciaran Hinds (Daily); Janet McTeer (Mrs. Daily).
Credits: Directed by James Watkins; written by Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Susan Hill; produced by Brian Oliver, Richard Jackson and Simon Oakes. A CBS Films release.
"The Woman in Black" Movie Trailer
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