Saturday, 11 February 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

As any true horror fan knows, there's nothing scarier than a dead child; except, perhaps, the dead child's vengeful mum. As Susan Hill knew when she wrote the book of The Woman in Black nearly twenty years ago, if you want to scare people out of their minds then it's certainly a good place to start. It was a refreshing experience to be sitting in a cinema and see the large blood red logo of Hammer spread itself across the screen - you might be able to find scarier and gorier films than those produced by the vintage studio, but if it's true classic retro horror cinema you're after, then Hammer is the shop for you.

In an unmistakeble echo of the opening of Dracula, at the start of The Woman in Black, young Lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe - yes, you heard me) travels to a remote English village in order to go through a life's worth of legal papers left behind in a marshland mansion. The villagers welcome him into their midst with the traditional practices of staring at him coldly from their windows, ushering their children inside when he walks by, and shoving him in the attic room of the local inn (from the windows of which three angelic young girls once jumped to their deaths). Kipps quickly discovers that all is not what it seems; in fact, the village is being terrorised by a ghostly woman in black who has a nasty habit of causing local children to kill themselves whenever she is seen by a living person.

The Woman in Black is a ripping yarn, a classic ghost story, and like all the best ghost stories, it starts with a house. This particular house is situated on an island in the middle of a marsh which is cut off from the mainland twice a day by the tide. It is the scenes of Kipps exploring the house which are undoubtedly the most frightening; shot cleverly by director James Watkins, they stretch the tension tighter than a violin string, almost making the viewer feel as if it is they, not Kipps, walking alone through the house. It has all the cliches of a haunted house; cobwebs, creepy stuffed animals, and enough ugly china dolls and warped wind-up toys to satisfy anyone, but somehow it never seems cliched. These classic props are filmed in innovative ways, reminding the viewer subconsiously of all their favourite old horror films without ever directly referencing them. The light from Kipp's candle playing across the dead glass eyes of a wind-up monkey band is, to my mind, the scariest shot of the film.

The best thing about this film is the way that the atmosphere of the haunting is created, and then the tension built slowly and deliberately within that atmosphere. In one particularly good scene, Kipps makes his way towards a loud banging sound upstairs which gets faster and faster the nearer he gets to it. When Kipps finally gets to the door of the room the sound is coming from, he can't get it open. He runs downstairs to get an axe, and runs back up only to discover that the door has opened by itself. Then, having just spent two minutes working his way along the corridor towards the closed door, he must make the same walk all over again towards the open one; by this point the viewer is practically chewing through their own fingers just for a bit of relief.

Radcliffe, although he is possibly a little young to have been cast in this role (Kipps has a four year old son and a dead wife) does an average job of it; it's Ciaran Hinds who pulls it off - he says more with one incredulous look than most actors could in a three minute soliloquy. Still, this film is far more centred on the dead than it is on the living; the actors and the story arc are put on the back burner in favour of the ghostly atmosphere and dexterous mise en scene (plus the ending, which I am informed is totally different from the book, leaves a lot to be desired). Still, if you're looking for a disturbingly tense 95 minutes, The Woman in Black will not disappoint - and you'll never be able to look at a wind-up toy in the same way again.

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