America has its silent man in gray that saves the lives of those who see him and now, with The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s titular phantom may become Great Britain’s terrifying marker of death, bringing forth the death of a child upon each appearance. Fundamentally, it’s an undistinguished horror film, but director James Watkins packages all the old tricks in a gothic tale which he takes back to the roots of old English doll-house horror.
Daniel Radcliffe is clearly trying to elevate his appeal but it’s unlikely that this role as a young London solicitor will take him far beyond the association with the Harry Potter franchise. But it shows range and he makes a sympathetic chap out of Arthur Kipps, which comes in handy at the unimaginative final. Kipps’s wife during child labor and sustaining his son is hard. He is given a chance to make good and is assigned solicitor of the Eel Marsh estate following the death of the last surviving resident.
In purely classical horror terms, this set-up works. As in The Turn of the Screw we are presented with the question of whether the ghosts are real or merely the sorrows haunting those who have lost loved ones. So compelling was this challenge first explored by Henry James that its influence can be traced as far as Stephen King’s The Shining. As he becomes acquainted with the locals, Kipps discovers he is not the only one who grieves. An alarmingly high number of villagers have lost children, including the Dailys (Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer), the couple that befriends him. There was certainly much tragedy in this village and it isn’t surprising if the locals are haunted by ghosts, imagined or otherwise.
If there is one thing The Woman in Black consistently gets right it’s the mood. Isolated in the misty swamps, Eel Marsh House is itself a character, capable of sending chills simply by standing there with its dark windows and foreboding sounds coming from within. Watkins’s recreation of the Edwardian era is unremarkable but its fun to see a modern horror movie remember its roots.
The scenes inside the crumbling Eel Marsh House create and effective feeling of isolation, well known to the best horror writers. Kipps is essentially trapped in a haunted house with no easy plan of escape or defense. Watkins does this rich material justice when he plays with the audience expectations in the way Hitchcock and John Carpenter loved to do.
The first appearance of the Woman in Black (Liz White) is a direct tribute to Henry James, reminiscent of the first ghost to appear in the garden in The Turn of the Screw. Much like F.W. Murnau did with Nosferatu, Watkins has adapted a classical tale of terror without claiming to have done so. Indeed the best horror taps into our primal fears that hide deep within our collective subconscious way out of the reach of copyright.
The Woman in Black is all gimmicks, but it works largely because it understands the principals of fear. As Kipps investigates the mysterious deaths surrounding the mansion, more children start dying and dark secrets are uncovered. Here the movie is playing on the vulnerability of children and the enigmatic disconnect we often feel from their thoughts despite our best intentions. We want to protect them but find it hard to do so without understanding them first. Henry James understood this frustration well and so does Watkins. At times we know he is playing with us (that had to have been a child’s hand Kipps saw on the glass panel, so it can only be a set-up for a scare), but its his play on our own familiarity that makes it so scary. One tip for future horror films, though. Go easier on the special effects, less is often more.
Perhaps The Woman in Black gives credence to the theory that ghosts are visual recordings in areas where strong emotions still linger. Kipps’s discoveries seem to confirm that. Some memories are too painful to keep buried. Even beyond the grave.