This review, written by myself in a paroxysm of post-screening disappointment and a desire to counteract my fiancé’s enthusiastic response, originally appeared online at The Graduate Times, a Scottish e-paper for university students (in truth, by post-graduates rather than under-graduates, but friends in high places an’ all…) Minor grammatical errors have been corrected from the original, which no one will inspect anyway.
13th March, 2012.
When primitive man first observed the world he invented two things: gods and ghosts. Both are still ingrained deeply into our culture. There’s quite a bit of entertainment and money to be made on their backs, too. The last few years have seen cinemas flooded with all sorts of ghost stories, from Paranormal Activity, The Devil Inside, and now of course, The Woman In Black. Part of why ghost stories remain equally endearing and terrifying is because they provide us with the relief of an afterlife whilst horrifying us with the possibility that human evil and malevolence does not die, it simply moves on – and worse, it may even linger.
Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the insert subtitle here; Equus) stars as Arthur Kipps, a widowed solicitor who travels to Eel Marsh House to handle the estate after its owner’s death. The manor lies in the wastes of the English countryside, occasionally segregated from the nearby village by the tides (the road there seems to pass over a shoal.) As settings go, the film is gold. However, whilst Kipps is certainly at threat from the titular Woman in Black, he’s not particularly endearing. His character development throughout the film amounts to nothing more than a five-o’-clock shadow. His motivation in regards to the ghostly goings-on is so thinly drawn that I was unsure if he really was a truth-seeking sleuth (there may or may not be a murder mystery here) or just a wandering procrastinator, well-deserving of his ill reputation back home at the law firm.
At one point Kipps mentions to friendly local Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds, Rome) that he feels, after his own wife’s passing, the need to believe in the supernatural. And yet he never seems truly moved by its presence. This is either down to Radcliffe’s preference to act with just his lips (the rest of his expressive powers, aside from the odd tilt of the eyebrows, seem to be off-limits) or simply sketchy writing. I suspect both. Hinds’ Sam Daily is probably the best character in the film – in fact, I was wondering why, source material aside, Hinds couldn’t have been the lead. His character has suitable enough motivation: the death of his son is tied into the spooky events surrounding the village; he has to contest with a maddened wife; and he carries an unfaltering sense of rationale that would make for an interesting character study, if said rationale was to be put firmly to the test. Additionally, Hinds seems truly haunted, and not just by the local ghouls. Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps, on the other hand, seems to inhabit a grey zone that he never really leaves. He has so little gravitas about him that I was amazed he wasn’t propelled off the earth and out of the picture.
If you’re a horror aficionado, then you’ll probably be mentally checking each “homage” that The Woman In Black manages to stuff into its runtime. Haunted houses, vine-choked graveyards and dusty, cluttered hallways are all staples of the genre, and the film won’t lose any points for featuring them (especially when they’re so well done.) But it’s hard to give any leeway when the similarities to other horror movies start to brazenly appear. The ghost-blighted house that Kipps is meant to set to order curses anyone who enters, à la Ju-On. A search for a submerged corpse smells like a sequence set in a disused well from Ringu and The Changeling. Rocking chairs and animated trinkets? Well, it’s The Evil Dead II played straight-faced. Unwelcoming, unhelpful, and unusual village people? Well, we can go anywhere here, but I personally checked An American Werewolf in London. Admittedly, none of these similarities will bother the horror movie novice.
The scares range from bumps in the night to swinging a screaming, grease-painted ghoul at the camera. They are occasionally effective (
dead children and dolls, we can all admit, are always frightening), but are usually overdone, as though the film is insecure about the atmosphere it evokes, and constantly has to set off musical boxes and trample floorboards in order to unnerve. The film’s strengths –which it frequently undermines– are the long, deep silences when something can happen, rather than when we’re assaulted by jump-scares that quickly lapse into laughter. The ending likewise castrates any of the film’s previous threat by reducing a character’s death to a happy limbo reunion scene.
Originality, especially in the over-saturated horror genre, is not easy. In fact, it may just be impossible. The key to a good horror flick, however, is to bring some sense of freshness to the screen. It also helps if you care about the well-being of the characters. The Woman In Black satisfies none of this criterion, though Hinds’ character is root-worthy. It certainly deserves to be seen if you wish to terrify your girlfriend (my fiancé had a blast watching the film from behind the safety of her fingers) or even a little sister that you’re not fond of. But for stalwarts of the genre, you’re not likely to be impressed.
[Rating:2 out of 5]