In an era where the torture porn flick and the erstwhile remake rule the horror genre, it’s kind of nice when someone decides to go back and “honor” the beginnings of horror with some classic, traditional gothic ghost storytelling. The last time this was done in such a specific fashion was in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others starring Nicole Kidman. Traditional, scary, and fascinating. It was done again, without the Gothic English setting to an extent in Insidious, the one where its first half was one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and the second was the campiest. Insidious is a good example of “Not every character in a horror movie has to be a dumbass”. Patrick Wilson’s character didn’t always feel the need to chase after ghosts and he actually turned on the lights when investigating something. Sadly, its second half seemed like it was from a completely different film. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either.
And now we have The Woman in Black, the latest ghost story that was based on the novel by Susan Hill. It has also found itself as a stage play. It’s been adapted into a television film. And now it’s come to the big screen with Harry Potter himself. Set in a creepy village that holds a creepy house to its name, Radcliffe plays the naïve widower and single-father of one, on a mission from his law firm to go through all of the documents in the creepy house so it can be sold and, ultimately, erased from the memories of the townspeople. The owner of the house has recently died, of course, under mysterious circumstances. And the eponymous ghost haunts the village and lures the village people’s children to their death.
Daniel Radcliffe is fine in this film. He is not great, nor is he terrible. I admire his eclectic choice in work, from coming of age dramas (December Boys) to nudity on stage (Equus) to a full-fledged Broadway musical (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) and now this. I admire the fact that he’s trying to prove himself as a good actor, that he isn’t just Harry Potter. And in this, The Woman in Black, he is beginning to shed his image as Harry and really hone into being Daniel. However, he doesn’t actually shine in the film. The script, written by X-Men: First Class scribe Jane Goldman, calls for Radcliffe to look over papers very contemplatively and to look very dramatic about children. And, at this, he does a fair job. But, who could ever really do a great job with that kind of material. The material isn’t bad, it just limits the actor. It would limit anyone in any horror movie. Let’s face it, horror movies are rarely when you find great performances. (Exception to the rule: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, but that’s more of a psychological thriller, isn’t it?) Here, as a young lawyer on his last chance under the name of Arthur Kips, he strains somewhat, but never reaches the overacting many fear of in horror movies.
And here’s where it comes to a screeching, screaming halt. The film, which seems to be lovingly seeped in Edwardian mystery, is traditional. Really traditional, almost to a fault. It’s so well acquainted with the tropes of haunted house movies and Gothic literature that you end up seeing every jump and jolt a mile away. Every little sub-plot you can predict. It’s still fun, but it’s not surprising in the least. It got to a point where even the cinematography was getting cliché, and I would keep groaning, mentally predicting what was to happen. Every aspect of the story was so traditionalist it was cliché. The man who goes to the house and doesn’t listen to the village people who tell him not to go. And then the village people suffer and basically say “told you so”. The skeptic who doesn’t believe there’s a ghost in the house. The ghost wants some revenge of some sort and will not rest until she gets it. Et cetera, et cetera. There was nothing original about it, and it’s hard to say whether this was the fault of the film itself or the source novel.
This isn’t to say that it’s a bad movie; it’s just not very good. And it is effective to a degree. Several times, the suspense is effective enough that I could feel the dread eating away at my mind, my flesh crawl, and I would indeed jump. But the burdened by its predictability, it was hardly scary enough to leave a lasting impression. The sound design, though, was top notch. Sound design tends to be fairly important in horror movies. Whenever a character turns around to encounter either a) the ghost or b) the ally, there’s always that increase in volume. The old house is effectively decorated and old and scary looking. Huzzah.
I find it quite interesting and funny that Hammer Film Productions produced this film. The company responsible for making Christopher Lee a star and that made such great B-horror movies is back, apparently, once again settling into the area of B-horror movies. And, I guess, that’s what you could call the Woman in Black. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not very good. It can be a lot of fun. But it never really scares you or is able to manifest true fear in any of its visual design or story. Despite its plot being interestingly told (almost in an epistolary way), it’s so traditional that it fails to keep your interest for the entire time. While it’s not to see a traditional ghost story on the screen again, one would hope for something scarier, something darker, and something less predictable. But, at least the Gothic horror story is back; back in Black.