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March 3, 2012

The Woman in Black

(2012, Dir. by James Watkins.)

There are two kinds of people that will want to see The Woman in Black. There are those who dig good old Gothic horror, and there are Harry Pottheads.  The two groups aren't always as far a part as you'd think - there's a heavy helping of horror goodness in the couple of Harry Potter flicks I've seen - but I'm definitely not the demographic that's checking out the film due to Daniel Radcliffe taking the lead.  I lean more toward being the demographic who struggles to see the film's title and not sing it to the tune of 'Lady in Red' - but that's a personal problem of mine.

The Woman in Black - a remake of a British TV movie that was based on a novel by Susan Hill - is the latest effort from the reborn Hammer Films, and it's a full-blown return to their roots in horror.  The period ghost story - I don't think the date is given, but I place the film around the 1930s by guessing - features plenty of scenes that feel like they jumped right out of a classic Hammer film - like disagreeable and ominous innkeepers or carriage drivers who won't go to certain remote places at certain dangerous times - and is certainly the most impressive of the new Hammer films in recapturing the spirit of the brand name.  The things I love about Hammer films - minus Lee, Cushing, and an abundance of well-placed corsets - are all over this film from the ominous start.

The film immediately warns us about the title spectre in the opening scene, which shows three young girls who are coerced to turn a tea party into a triple suicide by the woman's appearance. Shortly after, Radcliffe's character - an aspiring lawyer who's tasked to go through a considerable amount of paperwork at an abandoned mansion - arrives in town and heads to the secluded (and we're talking surrounded by marsh that floods the road secluded) home and starts to witness odd things and, eventually, the lady herself.

You probably don't have to guess to hard to figure out the ghastly woman's intentions - hauntings like this generally seem to go back to the same kind of causative circumstances - and Radcliffe's investigation weeds out the truth of who the woman is and why she's angry from beyond the grave relatively early in the film.  But the film maintains tension by visually manipulating the viewer.  There are more shadows in this film than you can possible imagine, and as the woman's appearances begin to increase I found myself increasingly wary of every odd black shape on screen and every movement I thought I saw.  The musical score (which is pretty well done by horror music maestro Marco Beltrami) adds to the unease well at most times, but there were a few moments when musical cues provide a warning to the viewer when perhaps we didn't need one.  The film's sound design also aggressively sells the scares, but has a few too many false stingers (like when birds fly by or a friendly hand surprises a character) for my liking.

The former Mr. Potter is on screen for pretty much the entire film, and does an admirable job of keeping the story afloat.  The character is still struggling with the loss of his own wife and a disconnect with his four-year-old son, which means Radcliffe spends a lot of time sulking and being mopey.  The actor's attempts at these scenes were slightly off-putting - maybe because his physical appearance is just so odd at this stage in his career and it seems like he's trying to model his head after that of a young Patrick Dempsey - but in total the performance gets across what it needs to.  There are a couple of fun additions to supporting cast - primarily Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer as the couple who take the lead character in - but the film primarily relies on Radcliffe and he doesn't drop the ball too often.

As the plot moves toward a conclusion, I unfortunately couldn't help feeling that some of the steam that was provide by the early part of the film had been released.  The final act feels more like a modern Insidious/Don't Be Afraid of the Dark type fright fest than a Hammer tale, and the uptempo pace and overbearing imagery as Radcliffe works to vanquish the woman were a little disappointing to me.  An obvious example is the woman in black, who sent chills down my spine when shown at a distance, but who looks like nothing more than another hollywood ghost when her visage is actually revealed.  The film also goes a little bonkers when focusing in on animatronic toys for sections of the film, and I don't think that milking these little critters and their odd faces creates as much unease as director James Watkins wants it to.

The film all boils down to a final confrontation which, to be honest, is a big mess.  After the lead leaves the creepy house for the last time things go straight off the rails, with everything from ghastly voiceovers to abrupt changes in tone and even a groan worthy final "scare" making me shake my head in disappointment.  It's rather unfortunate that the film didn't cut the ending up just a little bit - I believe there's a good ending inside what the film offers - but what we get seems muddled and rushed and just a bit silly.  I look at a film like Sam Raimi's latest, Drag Me To Hell, as a good example of how to pull off an ending of this type, because the ending that's presented here has too many attempts to wow the viewer - each of which takes power from the last.

I want to like The Woman in Black, because I was legitimately enamored with the film for most of the first hour, but it's hard to be as enthusiastic as I'd like to be based on the final act.  I still recommend checking this one out - it's the closest thing to a traditional haunting film or a classic Hammer film I've seen in a long time - but don't be surprised if some of the plot's latter turns leave you scratching your head.  Quibbles aside, I want to see more new horror movies like The Woman in Black, horror movies that offer atmospheric settings and classic chills, and I'm sure I'll gladly give this one another go sometime down the road when I want a dose of old-school horror.


Marvin the Macabre said...

What? You mean you didn't think the toys were the scariest part of the movie?

This film pretty much worked for me from beginning to end. There was some pretty intense haunted house creepiness going on in that mother.

I can see your point about the close shots revealing the woman as just a Hollywood ghost, but it didn't really bother me. Hey, I'm easy to please

The Mike said...

I dunno, I just felt the dolls thing had been done before. I liked it at first, but it got old - especially in the final sequence.

I agree about the creepiness though. The movie's grown on me since I saw it. Might give it another go soon.