Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black (2012)

Arthur Kipp is a lawyer tormented by the memory of his wife who died giving birth to their only son.  His career is on the verge of ruin and his only hope of saving it is to take an assignment to travel to a remote sea-coast village in north-east England to settle the estate and sell the house of a woman who died some years before.  When he arrives, Kipp is looked upon with hostility by the inhabitants and their fearful children; all of whom want nothing more than for him to go back to London on the next train.  More important, they don't want him under any circumstances to visit the house of the dead woman.  Why?  That is a very good question.

The Woman in Black is Hammer Films first attempt to go back to the Victorian horror that marked its glory days.  It hasn't been very well received by critics–largely because this is a slow building haunted house drama without the usual lashing of gore, dead teenagers or torture porn that have been the staple of the genre over the past three decades.  Instead, this is film that works very hard to establish that all-important trait of a good horror film: Mood.  As Kipp leaves London he is plunged into a world of fear and confusion; of hidden secrets and grim evils.  The start is slow, but this is deliberate and by the time the pay off comes, it is with some very genuine scares and an almost painful tension as we await the climax.  More than that, the film doesn't feel compelled to make a load of pointless cuts just to keep the average shot length down to under five seconds.  We not only see the scary bits, we get a good, solid look at them.

The director James Watkins took G K Chesteron's observation to heart:  What is frightening about a ghost is not what it can do to us, but what it is.  Kipp, played by Daniel Radcliffe is never in direct danger from what is haunting the house, but we are frightened out of our wits because Watkins does a very thorough job of convincing us of what it is.  Radcliffe, working very hard to shed his Harry Potter image despite a long shot of a steam train that screams "Hogwarts Express", does his best to step up to the role.  It's clear that he will probably never be a major actor, but it won't be for lack of trying.

The running time is a refreshing 95 minutes (only five minutes over Szondy's Law), which is about as much time as the premise will bear.  The only major criticism I can make is that the tension is almost relentless.  In Hammer's old days, there would have been a point where Michael Ripper would have walked on as a comic-relief poacher to lighten the mood for a couple of minutes, but here the screws are tightened down and never let off even at the end.

It's a good start for Hammer.  Now to see if they can keep it up.

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