Unsettling as it is entertaining, The Woman in Black is a deliciously creepy old fashioned ghost story, and the most enjoyable chiller since 2007’s The Orphanage. The film, an adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 book (which spawned a fantastic 1989 TV movie and a popular stage play) is a slickly crafted Gothic spookfest that fiddles with fear in a delightfully cinematic manner.
What makes The Woman in Black work is its unpretentious, increasingly alarming and emotionally jangling tone. Director James Watkins refreshingly doesn’t resort to gore for the scares or shock value - but the tension becomes almost unbearable as the film progresses and Watkins, his cinematographer Tim Maurice and composer Marco Beltrami keep the bloodcurling atmosphere going for the entirety of its 90 minutes. It really is pure eye and ear candy for young horror enthusiasts hungry for thrills. And it helps that Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe headlines the film with a mature, understated performance - it's great to see him tackling such a diverse role.
The story is fairly straightforward – Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer and a widower with a four year old son who is sent to a rotting mansion in the English countryside where the dead owner has left the estate a mess of paperwork. A sinister stench greets Kipps, there is no telephone or electricity; the townspeople seem to hide a secret and Kipps soon realizes that he is being watched from a distance by a ghostly figure in black. Soon enough, the bump in the dark frights assume full control all the way up to the smashing thrill ride of an ending. If you've seen half a dozen horror movies, you'll already know where the scares are. The standard clichés are a plenty - from the intimidating toys to the unexpected blasts from the music brass. Yet the jump scares are delivered exquisitely because director Watkins consistently finds new ways to sell them.
But the bigger coup of The Woman in Black is the pleasing climax coupled with the ample backstory. Moreover, the film marks a great return for the legendary Hammer productions that brought us such seminal horror films as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy. Not only does The Woman in Black serve as a fabulous reminder of the renowned studio's heyday, but it also enriches the things that made Hammer so famous. The lighting and set design is gorgeous and constantly offers spine-chilling visual cues and shadows. There are startling noises in the fog, grimy hand prints on window panes, the mansion itself is adorned in strange decorations and is cut off from the land by a lake, but none of the supernatural overtures are the least bit cheesy. They’re just enough to keep horror veterans entertained and newbies shifting at the edge of their seats.
The Woman in Black is a simple haunted house tale but it’s beautifully nerve-racking. If you’re on the lookout for sheer atmospheric horror then you really should double bill this movie with a DVD of The Orphanage and call it a night.
(First published in Mid Day)