Movie Review ~ The Woman in Black

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young lawyer travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds

Director: James Watkins

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

Random Crew Highlight:  Daily Spark Trainee – Maiya Rose

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  These days, old school horror is hard to come by.  Audiences seem to crave the gore and grotesque that take center stage in modern horror films.  It’s hard to remember, then, that there was a time when it’s what you didn’t see that scared you more than anything.  In the 1960’s Hammer Films was king of the hill as pioneers of excellent looking, pulpy, horror yarns that brought a distinctive European flair to the genre.  As the decade progressed into the 70’s the studio gradually buckled under the pressure for blood and boobs but it was these early 60’s films (my favorite being Horror of Dracula) that made lasting impacts.  How refreshing it was to see Hammer Films in the credits before The Woman in Black.  For me, the name alone brings back fond memories of old VHS tapes.

Thankfully, The Woman in Black is a solid throwback to those scare films of the 60’s that were heavy on atmosphere and performance.  The scares here are nothing new and you do get a sense that a certain scare checklist was gone through to make sure all the bases were covered.  And covered those bases certainly are.  From things that go bump in the night to ghostly apparitions that pop up in the most inconvenient places the movie takes its time to reveal its secrets and title character.  As is the case with most movies of this type, the anticipation of the scare is more successful than the payoff of the scream.  That being said, several moments sent that ever elusive chill up my spine.   It’s an easy movie to get behind with its excellent production values and nightmarish setting.

What I started to pay attention to about halfway through was the absence of dialogue.  I can’t imagine the spoken script for this was more than 20 pages.  Long stretches of film elapse without anyone saying a word.  Add to that the near total absence of a soundtrack and you are soon trained to pay attention to every creak and rattle as Radcliffe’s character goes exploring through Eel Marsh House (great name) and the surrounding grounds.

With no dialogue to go off of, the casting of our lead is paramount to the involvement of the audience.  If the viewer isn’t intrigued or taken in by him then the movie is fighting a losing battle.  In Radcliffe’s capable hands and haunting, haunted performance he successfully transitions from boy wizard to leading man status.  With his busy eyebrows and reddened eyes, he instantly tells you his back-story and shows the growing fear without telegraphing where it’s all headed.  It’s a great performance and perfect casting (though I wasn’t  totally sold on him being the father of a young boy…) and with him, the movie really takes off.  Supporting performances from Hinds and recent Albert Nobbs Oscar nominee McTeer as a couple that befriend Radcliffe are strong as is the casting of the villagers that harbor a dark secret.

The director and writer of these films have to really be on board with what they are presenting.  With The Woman in Black, we have a director/writer combo that bring their individual talents to the table and it’s a banquet of riches.  Director Watkins has one previous directing credit to his name and it’s a good one.  Eden Lake was a little seen British revenge film that’s worth checking out (plus it has a pre-fame Michael Fassbender in it!) and he also contributed to the above average sequel to the knockout horror film The Descent.  Here he gives every shot a nice and rich feeling to it while keeping the story moving.  There is great restraint in his directing and the script by hot screenwriter Jane Goldman.  Her credits aren’t too shabby either…having acted as screenwriter for X-Men: First Class, The Debt, Kick-Ass, and Stardust.  It would have been easy to have Radcliffe narrate his every move but Goldman favors line with flavor and hidden meaning. It works especially well when Radcliffe arrives in the village and no one gives him a straight answer to his question.  It adds to the mystery and the intrigue of the piece.

The film is based on a book which itself inspired a previous movie and long running London stage show.  I vividly remember seeing the two-person show in London and being frightened out of my Yankee gourd.  They say being scared in a movie is easy but being scared in a theater is hard and I whole-heartedly agree.  I’ve seen a few productions of it since but nothing compares to that UK version with its own set of secrets and bag of tricks.  This movie is closer to the book than the stage version was (it was necessary to maintain the format the play took on) but I do suggest reading the book if you have the chance.  It’s excellent.

The tone of a horror film is hard to establish and maintain.  Even if the film stumbles a bit and can’t  make it over its final hurdle, I have to give credit where credit is due.  For most of the running time this is a classy looking, elegantly paced, and scary picture.  It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or even attempt to…it focuses on giving its audience what they are looking for and for that we should be thankful.

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