To be sure, the film is full of every haunted house cliche you’ve ever seen, but writer Jane Goldman and director James Watkins seem to be saying, “We’re going to use these cliches and do them right,” and they do. The whole enterprise looks and sounds spot on. I give special props to the production designers, sound designers, and cinematographer (Tim Maurice-Jones), who have made this look and sound so perfect.
The film stars Daniel Radcliffe, his first film post-Hogwarts, as an attorney in Edwardian London who is still grieving his wife’s death during childbirth. He’s been so out of it that his firm has lost patience with him, and gives one last chance to shape up. Like Jonathan Harker in Dracula, he’s sent to a spooky house to go over paperwork, this time following the death of a widow.
When he arrives in the village in the fens of England, he finds almost every one inhospitable. A local businessman, (Ciaran Hinds), shows him kindness, as he’s a forward thinker, not caught up with superstition (he has the village’s only motorcar). Everyone else gives him the stink eye, and the local attorney he’s to work with urges him to leave town. But Radcliffe doesn’t want to botch the job (this plot point also serves to reinforce why he doesn’t leave town after most of us would have been frightened out of our wits) and goes to Eel Marsh House, which is one of the creepiest houses you’ll ever see. Whoever found this house deserves kudos.
We get the usual false scares (not a cat this time, but a bird) and creaking doors, but soon things aren’t right. If you’ve seen enough of these films, you know to look in the background for things that move that shouldn’t, or to keep a look out for reflections in mirrors. We get all that, and it’s a gas. Radcliffe sees a woman dressed in black, standing out in the house’s graveyard, an arresting image. He learns that she is likely the spirit of a troubled young woman who hung herself after her son, who was taken away from her by her sister and husband, died in an accident. He was entombed in the mud that separates the house from the mainland.
Whenever the woman in black is seen, a child in the village dies. Turns out that the woman has the power to tell children to jump out windows or head into the sea, and she’s keen on revenge. Hinds’ son died this way, and his wife (Janet McTeer) has never gotten over it. Radcliffe figures if he reunites the woman with her boy (whose body was never found), she’ll stop killing, and he and Hinds, like the opposite of Burke and Hare, set to put things right, especially before Racliffe’s small son arrives.
Once a ghost story gets into the mechanics of who is doing the haunting and why, it usually bogs down, as does The Woman in Black, but it still maintains a high concentration of dread. The scene where Radcliffe sets the boy’s body out and winds up all his toys, luring the mother to appear, is top-notch.
The film is from Hammer Film Productions, who made some of the greatest horror films ever made, went moribund in the ’80s, but has been resurrected. I hope this film makes enough money to continue it’s good work in the genre, because many recent films have given horror a very bad name.
My grade for The Woman in Black: B.