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The Woman in Black (2012)

February 11, 2012


written by: Jane Goldman (screenplay) and Susan Hill (novel)

produced by: Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes & Brian Oliver 

directed by: James Watkins

rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images)

runtime: 95 min. 

U.S. release date: February 3, 2012


Hammer Film Productions is a UK company responsible for releasing Gothic horror films known “Hammer Horror” from the 50s through the 70s. Then the horror genre went a considerably different direction, leaving behind foreboding mansions shrouded in fog, creepy townsfolk, and things that go bump in the night. Hammer Film producer Simon Oakes has recently staged a revival of atmospheric horror films, with its first hit being the 2008 American remake “Let Me In”. Last year saw the release of two unsettling thrillers,  “The Resident” and “Wake Wood”, that had supporting roles for potentially creepy actors, Christopher Lee and Timothy Spall (respectively), and were both released Direct-to-DVD and VOD in the States. Thanks to the “Harry Potter” films, “The Woman in Black”, will undoubtedly be the most successful film yet of the Hammer revival, with Mr. Potter himself, young Daniel Radcliffe headlining the film in his first post-Potter feature film.

Radcliffe is the real reason people will see this film, although – I can’t say he’s the reason.

Set in Edwardian-era England, the film opens with three sweet little girls playing with homemade toy dolls (eerie ones at that, the first of many) in an attic, who are suddenly summoned by an unseen source to walk over to the windows and jump to their death. The tone is set….

We then meet a young man named Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a widowed father in London with overdue bills, who leaves his toddler son with his nanny while he travels north for work. He’s sent by his employer, a law firm (although it is unclear if he’s actually a lawyer), to small seaside village to sort out the estate of a recently deceased woman. On the train ride there, he meets Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) a wealthy landowner and friendly man who learns that Arthur’s destination is the Eel Marsh House and offers him a ride into town from the train station. He is, we learn, the only one in town with a motorized vehicle.



When Arthur’s lodging arrangements fall through, Sam invites him to his home for dinner, where we meet his troubled wife (Janet McTeer) and learn that they once had a son, who died as a young boy. With their shared experience of lost loved ones, the kindred spirits almost seem like a family – especially considering their son would have been Arthur’s age, had he lived. The rest of the villagers though are resistant to their new visitor and are eager to see him leave. Curiously keeping their children inside their homes, they remain mysteriously on edge.

Sam drives Arthur to the empty mansion, located at the end of a lone causeway. Surrounded by marshlands and sea water, the desolate location is inaccessible through much of the day due to high tides (reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s “Cul-de-Sac”), as if deliberately cut off from humanity. Arthur sets about his work, left to sort through piles of paperwork – until he starts to hear things, like footprints. He searches various rooms, finding nothing in what used to be a child’s playroom except some ugly homemade tchotchkes – creepy dolls, clowns, and monkeys.

Looking out the window, he sees a Woman in Black staring back at him in a nearby cemetery. Her face is gaunt and sickly looking with a laser beam gaze and she is dressed in a long black gown, in a kind of sacrilegious habit. Of course, as he leaves the house to check – she is gone. Since she is the titular character, we know she’ll be back. The music will cue us with jolting strings, the villagers will be aghast as they Arthur recounts, “I saw her!”, and so on. This is what we traditionally know about a movie like this, there’s no getting around such familiar aspects.

After mentioning this Woman in Black to the locals, Arthur discovers this is a woman scorned, who now haunts the Eel House property, and is responsible for several unspeakable acts involving local children. (Know wonder their parents were keeping them out of sight). Arthur sets out to reverse the curse of the Woman, in order to ensure the safety of his own son, who is set to visit him in three days with his nanny. Whether or not he knows what to do or if it will work is unclear, since it seems nothing has stopped this malevolent poltergeist in the past.

I’ll give director James Watkins (who made 2008‘s unrelenting “Eden Lake”) credit for delivering appropriate Gothic mood and atmosphere, and he also provides considerable scares, that may have viewers slumping down in the their seats or jumping out of them. In fight he and composer Marco Beltrami may have one to many jolting moments, at least for my tastes. I’m a believer in using such tactics sparingly in order to properly manipulate and string along the audience. Still, I much prefer what Watkins is doing here, basically on ode to straight-up ghost stories and urban myths, than the found footage and torture porn that we’ve seen churned out every October for the last seven or so years.



Where this film suffers is with its screenplay and its star. Nothing against Radcliffe, but he’s completely unconvincing as a widowed father. I respect that he hasn’t chosen a blockbuster in his first post-Potter role, and would gladly see him seek out indie fare, but the role that he’s famous for is a handicap (or spectre) here. To be fair, Radcliffe doesn’t have much to work with here, thanks to Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass” & “The Debt”), who provides the actor with minimal dialogue, leaving him to look wide-eyed and confused at just about every turn. We saw enough of that in the last handful of “Harry Potter” films. What would have been nice here is to give the character a particular set of skills, but we never really know what he’s capable of or what – if any – specialty he has.

From the beginning, it seemed like he was sent up there as a lackey, with his employer giving him the requisite “one last chance”. So, then how is it that as soon as he hears spooky things,  literally sees the writing on a wall (in blood, no less), and bumps into the Woman in Black, that he turns into this investigator. Where does that come from? We’re not told. It’s not explained. In one particularly bizarre scene, we see Arthur take action and dive into a murky marsh to retrieve an object that he hopes will appease The Woman in Black. It’s an uncharacteristic move, that comes out of nowhere (something we would expect more from the Boy Wizard) and actually proves quite futile anyway. I blame Goldman for that. It’s lazy writing that wants to inject the film with a cheap red herring by way of an action scene.

Granted, she is adapting a beloved 1983 novel by Susan Hill, that was also made into a play, but this film adaptation needed a more convincing protagonist to help out such a sluggish story. Maybe that goes back to Radcliffe’s youth and the role he’s most known for. I can think of more convincing UK actors that could’ve pulled off this role in a more convincing manner, like Martin Freeman, James McAvoy, or Paul Bettany. My bet is the studios wanted someone young and with drawing power – so it was either Radcliffe or Robert Pattinson (in that case, let’s be grateful it was Radcliffe). As for the antagonist, she certainly looks the part – meaning, someone I wouldn’t want to see outside my window, but after a while she looks like a prop in a scary haunted house ride.

The reason she isn’t more fearful is because Goldman only vaguely eludes to her possible motivations. She wants revenge? To what end and what extent? If we knew a little more, we’d be more fearful. Many ghosts we see on film are haunting or committing evil acts, because they are not at peace – but no one has any clue here what will stop this apparition. So, why not leave and not bother trying?

In the end, what we have here is solid viewing for any horror fan – or, let’s face it – Harry Potter fan. But, its story lacks depth and originality, simply relying on Gothic traditions and the presence of a popular young actor. If I’m recasting him as I’m watching the movie, something is wrong.




RATING: **1/2




4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2012 2:49 pm

    Recasting this film would have been interesting. Let’s shoot for the moon and stick Michael Fassbender in there. Would have been a very different film.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 11, 2012 6:33 pm

      Well, Fassbender did immediately come to mind – but sheesh, the guy can’t be everywhere. That’s why I kinda liked McAvoy or Freeman, but to cast them to carry a film – no studio would back that. For example, imagine “Wanted” without Angelina Jolie, just McAvoy as the main character – no greenlight!

  2. Kathy permalink
    February 12, 2012 1:58 am

    “The reason she isn’t more fearful is because Goldman only vaguely eludes to her possible motivations. She wants revenge? To what end and what extent? If we knew a little more, we’d be more fearful.”

    I think you nailed it. My husband and I saw this movie this afternoon….There was something about the way the movie ended that made us feel like it was…incomplete. I think I agree with you that fleshing out the back story of Jennet (woman in black, for those who haven’t seen the movie) would have made her a more satisfying character. We too also debated whether or not Radcliffe was believable as a father. I think I was willing to let that slide given that adults in that time period did get married younger, and John thought they did a reasonably good job making him look older.

    Overall, we liked the movie, but probably would have rewritten the ending. And we enjoyed making snarky Potter references while watching it…Radcliffe’s character has trouble opening a door…I whisper to my husband “He should use ALOHAMORA! Oh wait…that doesn’t work here…”


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