Ghost stories are essentially the comfort food of the horror genre. If you’re the kind of horror fan who appreciates the subtle side of the genre – a slow-burn narrative, the measured but steady ratcheting up of bad vibes, using photography and set design to create a spooky mood – the ghost story is the best venue the genre has to offer for such an approach. Even people who don’t like horror movies can relate to the atmosphere and subtle chills that can be wrought from the simplest ghost story narrative by filmmakers willing to put in the work.
The Woman In Black is the latest example of such an approach to the ghost story and it draws a lot of strength from its old-fashioned approach. Fittingly, the storyline – derived from a novel by Susan Hill – has a period setting. The protagonist is Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young widower and father still consumed by the too-soon death of his wife. He attempts to rebound by pouring himself into his work as a lawyer, traveling to a remote marsh-bound village to finish up the affairs of the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House.
The trouble begins with his arrival: virtually all the villagers stiff-arm him and encourage him to leave, with the exception of Daily (Ciaran Hinds). Arthur quickly discovers that Eel Marsh was the site of a child’s tragic death, one that has been followed by the deaths of several children in the village. Eel Marsh House is believed to be a haunted by a vengeful spirit but no one will say who the spirit is or why it is so angry. It is up to Arthur to solve the mystery for himself, helped by a reluctant Daily. The answers he finds are, as you might expect, the kind that bring no peace for anyone involved.
Despite being fairly popular at the box office, The Woman In Black has gotten a mixed reception from horror fans. At least part of this can be explained by the fact that the film doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel in its approach to the genre or add any dazzling twists to the story’s archetypal elements.
However, one could argue that the film’s adherence to the familiar is also a strength. It takes time and work to make a story like The Woman In Black effective – and everyone involved here makes the necessary investment to make the film a solid exercise in the ghost story form. For starters, it has a solid foundation: Jane Goldman’s script handles its slow-burn approach with confidence, deploying its setpieces at the right time and adding the occasional touch of oddball humor to soften up the audience for the next shock.
Better yet, director James Watkins brings a tidy sense of style to the proceedings, giving the spooky moments enough room to breathe while maintaining a solid pace that ensures the film never wears out its welcome. He’s likeably restrained in his use of CGI, sticking to physical effects when possible, and knows how to make the most of a setpiece: the house-bound third act plays like gangbusters and throws out every spooky trick in the book. That said, a major highlight of the film doesn’t even involve ghosts: a bit where Hinds and Radcliffe struggle to retrieve something from a car submerged in a big mud bog is white-knuckle stuff, very effectively staged and edited.
Finally, the performances are suitably professional (and blessedly free of any ironic winks to the camera). Radcliffe displays surprising “grown-up” leading man chops: since several stretches of the film require him to react to odd noises and sights alone, he is required to carry much of the film on his shoulders – and he does so in a confident, subtle manner. He even kind of looks like the young leading men in Hammer Films from days gone by. Hinds adds quietly professional support as the one kindly resident of the village and there’s a scene-stealing bit performance from Janet McTeer as Hinds’ wife, who has been driven mad by the ghost “taking” her child.
In short, The Woman In Black slots in a “programmer” level for the ghost story but it’s a strong programmer – and at a time when the horror movie marketplace relies upon cheap shocks and self-conscious outrageousness to court its audiences, it’s refreshing to see a movie that invests its energy in craftsmanship to pull off the necessary scares. If you want to go “old fashioned” with your next horror viewing, The Woman In Black offers a comfortably spooky way to go.