Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman In Black (2012) – Blu-ray & DVD review
Wandering and wand-less, Daniel Radcliffe finds that not every big old house is as cosy as Hogwarts. A proper, old-school ‘get outta there!’ affair.
The Woman In Black
(James Watkins, 2012)
How often is horror really scary? Or – to be more precise – how often does it even try? These days, the genre prefers to disgust audiences using the shock tactics of The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film, seeing the traditional virtues of the old-school chiller as passé. And yet here’s James Watkins, a veteran of thoroughly modern horror in Eden Lake who has now seen the light – or, rather, he’s switched the lights off, in order to send you to bed anxious about what might be lurking in the shadows.
The Woman In Black is surprisingly effective, driven by a bold commitment to those old-fashioned chills. Much was made on the film’s cinema release about its 12A certificate, as the distributor trimmed a few seconds in order to secure a rating that would bring in star Daniel Radcliffe’s fanbase. But, for once, commercial logic is no bad thing. Robert Wise’s The Haunting, to pick one example, didn’t need gore or violence to get under your skin, and Watkins achieves an escalating tension using nothing more than judiciously placed imagery. The titular ghoul makes so many subliminal appearances the film starts to resemble a Victorian era version of Fight Club.
There are dangers is such a single-minded approach, especially in a mid-section that consists entirely of things going bump in a standard-issue haunted house. But Watkins does two things to keep those nagging clichés at bay. The first is how tight this is, technically. Fabulous location choices and production design turn Eel Marsh House into a classic of the genre, with Radcliffe’s jittery lawyer Arthur Kipps marooned on the wrong side of a pungent causeway with only a menagerie of creepy dolls for company. Watkins’ camera forever inches forwards, closing off the escape routes but also making it difficult to spot where the jumps are going to come from.
The second is Watkins’ understanding of the source material. Susan Hill’s story has already achieved fame as a novel, a West End hit, several radio plays and a TV film, and with good reason. Hill totally gets the parameters of her genre – this could pass as an undiscovered Victorian-era original – but the benefit of hindsight adds new layers. Hill’s story is a memento mori for the horrible ubiquity of child mortality during the 19th Century; sure, it gets a Gothic spin but the grief is rooted is reality.
The film cuts to the heart of this issue with a major deviation from the novel – but every adaptation has made its changes, and it makes Watkins’ film its own beast. Jane Goldman’s script recalibrates Kipps from family man to a widower, making him a man prepared to believe in ghosts and giving him a darkly ironic relationship with the son he blames for killing his wife during childbirth. When children start dying at the Woman in Black’s hands, it makes for a bleak catharsis as a numbed Kipps begins to realise his true duty of care as a parent.
In other words, the technical bravura is underpinned by a tangible sadness, ensuring that this is a cut above most haunted house movies. Only a few months after the similar The Awakening (a story whose blend of traditional atmosphere and contemporary psychology is heavily indebted to Susan Hill), it’s a promising sign of Brit horror’s ambition. The Awakening scuppered its potential with an overly contrived backstory that snapped momentum and plausibility; The Woman In Black avoids the same fate by not trying so hard; it’s a much cleaner affair propelled less by narrative trickery than an inexorable fatalism.
As for the big question: how’s Harry Potter? The reactive nature of the main role is a big ask for any actor, especially for one who has spent a decade with the same filmmaking family, but Watkins uses Daniel Radcliffe’s iconic place in British film to his advantage. Radcliffe isn’t used to being alone on set, and the film captures something of that hesitancy in those long scenes of Arthur wandering around Eel Marsh House. It’s not quite a one-man show (to be honest, Ciaran Hinds steals proceedings in a moving performance as a local desperately trying to stave off the superstitions of his neighbours) but Radcliffe is very watchable, a star in a very unstarry role.