“The Woman in Black”, from the get go, had a lot going for it and a lot going against it. First of all, it is rated PG-13, as good as a death wish for horror movies. Then, the primary actor in the movie is Daniel Radcliffe, of “Harry Potter” fame. On the positive side, it’s a creepy looking movie set in turn of the century England. It’s made by a bunch of Brits on their home turf, so they should know their stuff. And it is presumably about a ‘Woman in Black’, an age old concept of the wronged woman out for revenge. Like the story of the ‘Woman in White’, the ‘Woman in Black’ mythos is seen in many cultures and geographic areas, under many different circumstances, but the same general theme. Where the ‘Woman in Black’ is a vengeful spirit, the contrast ‘Woman in White’ is usually seen as a mournful ghost, sometimes beneficial but mostly hands-off. Fortunately for the audience, and Radcliffe’s continued career, the movie succeeds in taking the familiar concept of vengeful ghosts and throwing off all other preconceptions, creating a genuinely scary visual experience all while spinning an endearing tale of father and son.
Don’t let that last bit fool you; “The Woman in Black” is definitely a mystery whose main plot centers around the mysterious deaths of children. The story starts with Radcliffe, a young lawyer, being sent to a small village to tidy up the loose ends at an old woman’s estate. The estate, Eel Marsh House, is a creepy old manor located in the middle of a swamp, accessible only when the tide is right. Before Radcliffe can even get there, things start getting odd. The townspeople aren’t helpful at all, and children start dying. Of course it is up to our fearless main character to figure out what is happening and fix it, a classic structure in horror films. Classic, yes, tried and true, yes. Unfortunately, that also means that it ends up being predictable and unoriginal. Not that it’s a bad story, its just that it doesn’t take a psychic to know what’s going to happen next.
The directing is really where this film shines. I’d never heard of James Watkins before, but I bet we’ll see his name again at some point. A good vision of how this film should feel coupled with very effective cinematography makes for an incredibly pleasurable viewing experience. While I’ve expressed my gripes about the story already, the way the narrative is conveyed more than makes up for the somewhat played out plotline. When I think of horror, real horror, I think of monsters lurking in the shadows, ghosts in the distance, eerie noises coming from all around. These are the kind of things that are real and tangible, that a viewer can relate to. And, those are the elements that the director has injected into “The Woman in Black”. As an audience, we are always craning our neck to peer into the next room, watching the corner of a mirror as it passes out of view. You want to see everything this film has to offer, and to do that you must watch not only the primary action but also everywhere else on the screen. The standout of all of this was the use of focus. Nearly everything scary is just out of focus, or so fleeting that you have to fill in the gaps yourself. When trying to find a good image for this review, I came across plenty of stills of the titular woman from the film; that is not at all what I saw during the movie. Maybe I’ve got a wild imagination, but I think that is a true testament to how powerful selective focus can be for a movie.
When we seriously get down and analyze the players in this fright fest, we are not disappointed. I and many of my contemporaries had a lot of doubts about Daniel Radcliffe’s acting chops. Well, two hours later, I’m proud to announce that Radcliffe has successfully thrown off the cape and wand in favor of whatever damn costume he feels like donning. In about as far a role from the boy wizard as you can get (and still keep the accent), Radcliffe plays a young widowed lawyer with a four year old son and a lot on the line. The emotion of dealing with the death of his wife and the love he feels for his son are very convincing, and rarely did I question the believability of the role. Ciaran Hinds, who plays Daily, is also very good in his role of the secretly anguished skeptic in town. The rest of the cast might be prime stock in the Old Country, but they’re fresh faces to me. Everyone performed well for their character, although the children came across as rather bland. Not sure if that was the intent or if British kids are just lousy at showing emotion.
The costuming and set pieces were an absolute joy. I’m not a historian, but I felt like I was in turn of the century England. Everything was still dirty and gloomy, but we did have cool cars. The house itself was one of the coolest things I have ever seen, sitting atop a hill in the middle of a giant swamp. I don’t know if that is a real location or just a model, but it looked great and almost makes me want to visit. Plus, the house is downright creepy. The only thing that bothered me was that darn road. Everyday at the tide, the water would rise and the road would be completely washed out. Then, as soon as the tide left, the road was above water and fine. But this was no paved road, it was a dirt path at best! These kinds of things really bother me when I get out of movies, but fortunately they have no real bearing on the merits of the film itself.
“The Woman in Black” is a surprising little movie put out by the British Film Board. I’ve always thought the Brits had a pretty good handle on horror, but after “Shaun of the Dead” and “28 Days Later” I thought maybe they only knew about zombies. Well, I was wrong, they know about ghosts and creepy kids, too. While this is a great movie to watch in your house at night by yourself, it also turns out to be a great date movie. A girl will never cuddle closer to you than during the final scene with Radcliffe walking through the house. Part mystery and part fatherhood story, “The Woman in Black” is 100% scary and a great movie to check out if you’re on the fence about PG-13 fright flicks.