Adapted from a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, which itself was adapted into a stage production, The Woman in Black is about a young 19th century lawyer named Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who suffers from Unlucky Protagonist syndrome: his wife is dead, his son knows Arthur is depressed, and he apparently sucks at his job too, because his last chance at the law firm he works at is to go to the small village of Crythin Gifford to prepare the paperwork of the recently deceased Alice Drablow at her large, isolated Eel Marsh House, which is out in the middle of a dark, nasty marsh and is totally not filled with evil. With the help of his only friend in town, Sam (Ciaran Hinds), Arthur must figure out what’s going on with the creepy things he continually sees in the house and the mysterious deaths of the town’s children.
The Woman in Black certainly earns the first tip of the glass for some extremely satisfying atmosphere. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) and his cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones display an impressive attention to detail and what occupies the frame for a creeping sense of dread. Shadows flit around, things appear and disappear in the background, and knocking sounds echo from hidden and unreachable places. These were the best bits of the movie, slowly building a creeping sense of dread and unease. The set design and art direction are second to none: the house is on top of a hill in the middle of a very creepy marsh, and is filled with evil-looking toys and other requisite haunted house miscellanea. Indeed, many elements of the film combine for some decent scares, not the least of which is the sound design. A very creepy theme knows just when to play, and admirably remains absent during the creepiest scenes, which considerably increases the scare factor. I’m normally not a fan of getting startled in horror movies, but a couple of these scares were built up very well and truly felt as though they had been earned.
Yeah, this house doesn’t have anything wrong with it. At all.
Be careful not to spill that second beer, because when it’s not skillfully building tension, the movie relies a little too heavily on some cheaper jump scares. It actually recycles quite a bit of them, to the point where the scares are so heavily telegraphed that by the sixth or seventh time the Woman jumps into the frame (accompanied by the ear-destroying blast of noise), it’s hardly scary because the same formula has been copied and pasted once again. Some of them were pretty good the first time, but they kept getting re-used and it felt as though the movie was sinking into the classic formula of the PG-13 horror flick.
And not always in a good way.
This beer is optional if you think that Daniel Radcliffe looks like a widowed lawyer with a four-year-old child. For everyone else, which is everyone in the world, you’ll need this beer to believe that Harry Potter is a widowed lawyer with a four-year-old child. Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps is simply poor casting, and the young actor does not quite pull off the role, especially when opposite the extremely talented Hinds. He’s not a bad actor, but the character calls for way more than Radcliffe delivers here.
The final beer is for the ending, which was extremely anticlimactic and essentially negates the prior twenty minutes of the film. It’s a shame, too, because the middle segment of the movie was excellent. Unfortunately, the ending (which differs from both the book and stage production), just kind of happens. I won’t spoil it, but my reaction was basically, “OK, cool. I’m hungry.” In fact, most of the third act was fairly dull, save for an exciting segment in the marsh. However, that was followed by a failed attempt at both straight ghostly action and emotional drama, followed AGAIN by a simple ending chiller that just did not work.
Yeah, kinda like that.
The Woman in Black is definitely a bit above average for a haunted-house horror movie, and delivers some great scares at certain points in the film. It’s a kind of creepy first act, a chilling second, and lackluster third. It’s always sad when movies fall apart toward the end, especially when it is a horror film that does so well with establishing tension earlier on. That said, horror fans, especially ones that enjoy a decent mix of slow-burn tension and jolting scares, should enjoy this one enough if they’re not expecting a landmark of the genre.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time you want to scream, “OMG HARRY LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!!”
Take a Drink: every time Arthur does something that a reasonable person should never, ever do in a horror movie.
Drink a Shot: every time Ciaran Hinds and his huge eyes kind of creep you out.
Take a Drink: every time you see the Woman in Black herself.