Review: 'The Woman in Black'

Daniel Radcliffe in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)
Daniel Radcliffe in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)

The new Hammer strikes again! And this hammerstrike packs one heck of an entertainment wallop.

We’re talking about Hammer Films, the organization that brought us such cheesy, guilty pleasure, ’50s era creepshow treats as Horror of Dracula and Revenge of Frankenstein, only to find itself increasingly less relevant as a horror film factory in an emerging era of schlock, gore and torture porn.

The semi-dormant film production company resurrected itself to wide critical and public acclaim with 2010’s Let Me In, an English-language remake of the Norwegian vampire film Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in). Let Me In was a really good movie. The Woman in Black (directed by James Watkins) is better.

Think you’re too old to feel chills running down your spine? Too jaded to discover, to your amazement, that your hair is actually standing on end? Buy a ticket to this old fashioned haunted house tour de force and prove yourself wrong. (And me right, as a happy consequence.)

Harry Potter — I mean, Daniel Radcliffe — stars as a struggling law clerk named Arthur Kipps. Kipps, a down-at-the-mouth widower with past-due bills and a son to support, accepts an assignment that finds him traveling by train to the remote seaside village of Crythin, where a wealthy and reclusive property owner has just passed away. It will be Kipps’ job to pore over the old lady’s reams of documents in order to settle the estate.

Daniel Radcliffe in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)
Daniel Radcliffe in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)

The documents in question are said to be found in the shunned and shuttered mansion known rather whimsically as Eel Marsh House, located at the end of a spit projecting seaward. The promontory upon which the brooding manor house stands becomes an island every time the tide comes in, making for the kind of tailor-made isolation and otherworldiness that only a devilishly clever writer could conjure up.

(Credit to Susan Hill, who authored the 1983 novel upon which the movie is based; and Jane Goldman for the screenplay; and, perhaps most of all, to the visual effects artists who make this remarkable bit of unreality look so astoundingly real.)

Upon arriving at the village of Crythin, poor Kipps must think he’s stumbled into the plot of an old Dracula movie — I mean, if he’d been born 100 years later and had occasion to actually SEE an old Dracula movie, he being a fictional character and all. See, the townsfolk treat Kipps like a visiting leper who’s lost his wits: the hotelier claims to have never received his reservation, the town lawyer hands him a slim packet of papers with the insistence that these are all the relevant documents, and the buggy driver seems intent on delivering him, posthaste and without further ado, to the train station for immediate return to London.

Only the exhorbitant fee of six shillings convinces the driver to abandon his instructions and drive Kipps to Eel Marsh House — and that degree of bribery only gets him to the front gate of the expansive property, from whence he must walk the rest of the way to the manse itself. This forced perambulation takes him past the graveyard where various members of the Drablow family have been laid to rest. And where one, in particular, hasn’t.

Ciaran Hinds in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)
Ciaran Hinds in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)

The marvelously craggy Ciarán Hinds — who recently starred in another above average ghost thriller (2009’s The Eclipse) — plays Mr. Daily, a landed gentleman with the only motorcar in the county. Daily is also singular in the sense that he welcomes Kipps and becomes an ally in the lawyer’s efforts to carry out his estate-settling duties.

Janet McTeer, fresh from her stunning performance as a cross-dressing carpenter in Albert Nobbs, provides some much-needed levity in the role of Mrs. Daily. When she invites “the twins” to join Mr. Kipps and her husband at the dinner table, you will likely be surprised at who shows up. Or, at the very least, amused.

The haunting of Eel Marsh House ramps up through a series of hints and intimations of continued occupancy. Kipps, working by candelight to decode the tragic Drablow family history, experiences them as rumblings (as might be caused by disused plumbing), distant stirrings (as if from draughty windows) and faint musical susurrations. The source of the latter is revealed when Kipps finds his way into the nursery, where dozens of wind-up toy animals line the dresser tops and side tables. Seldom have closeups of toys been used to such sinister effect, as cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones delights in transforming them into demonic villains merely through the use of extreme closeup and artful framing. And, of course, context.

Children play a key role in the events at the center of The Woman in Black: their instinctual wisdom and innate sensitivity inform an ongoing series of horrific events. Their very existence carries with it a load of potential tragedy in the lives of their parents — a potential that turns all too real, all too often for the residents of Crythin, whose misgivings about the meddlesome, inquisitive outsider end up being entiretly understandable.

In the film’s nerve-wracking climactic scenes, there’s nothing subtle or suggestive about the titular entity haunting Eel Marsh House. She (played, ironically enough, by an actress named Liz White) emerges as a full-on banshee of a spook, as visible and impactful as any of the all-too-mortal players.

Nervous Nellies and those with small children (or children on the way) would be well-advised to bypass this old school  cinematic shocker. For the rest of us, it’s a shivery treat of the highest order.

“She makes us. She  makes us.

They took her boy away and now she takes us.” – Crythin children’s chant

[The Woman in Black opens wide across the Metroplex tomorrow.]

Innocent children in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)
Innocent children in 'The Woman in Black' (Hammer/CBS Films)

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