*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 06/01/12 ***
There’s just something about ghost stories, Doc. A good one will dole out endless chills and sleepless nights, thrilling you all the while. Everyone’s heard them (or told them) around the campfire as a kid, the anticipation of the scare being heightened by the lighting and the mood. It’s not just the tale, it’s the environment that flings you into the story. As a result, there’s a connection made – something primal and full of feeling. That’s the very magic of storytelling. Sadly nowadays, most “scary” movies rely on “torture-porn” tactics to elicit cringes. Story often takes a backseat to gory. Thankfully, for every seven Saw movies dumped on us, we get one The Woman in Black (available now from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). Hammer’s latest horror is a refreshing change of pace for a genre that seems to be limiting itself to sparkly vampires, hallucinating or mentally ill protagonists and gross-out mutilations. Not only are we treated to a good story, we’re given the privilege of that magical connection that’ll creep the hell out of you.
Daniel Radcliffe (December Boys, The Tailor of Panama) stars as Arthur Kipps, a recently widowed lawyer and single father who’s sent to a dead client’s remote, dilapidated English manor to settle her estate. The home, surrounded by swamp land, belonged to the reclusive old Alice Drablow who had lived there with her husband, son and sister. Years earlier, the young boy had drowned in the marsh and Arthur is quick to learn the locals avoid this place like the plague. Despite the townsfolk wanting him to leave, Kipps presses on with his business and begins to see the titular “Woman in Black”. Little by little her mystery is revealed to him, but every appearance brings on a child’s suicide. Perhaps Arthur can finally lay this spirit to rest and save the town from her terror – or just maybe she has plans of her own for Arthur…
I just can’t tell you how beautifully shot this movie is. Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones (Revolver, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) uses high-contrast lighting to provide pools of light and shadow throughout the film. This serves two important purposes: 1.) It gives a feeling of the era (the early 1900′s), where oil lamps or the occasional incandescent bulb gave off a warm, yet dim amber glow. 2.) The filmmakers effectively hide “things” in the darkness. There are plenty of visual tricks played on the audience and they’re so brilliantly executed you could spend an entire viewing just watching for treats in the background. Color is stripped away to give a dead, otherworldly atmosphere to this haunted community and CG is used sparingly.
The filmmakers also make great use of sound and music. The very opening scene depicts three young girls playing with their dolls, suddenly falling into a trance. With dead stares, they rise. Walking over their toys, they break porcelain heads and tea cups to stand before a three-paned window. The score is steady and mesmerizing, sounding like an eerie little music box that grows louder and louder until the girls spontaneously leap to their deaths. The stage is now set and like this, nearly every scene is shot to build the mood. There are very, very few artificial scares like a sudden loud noise that catches you off guard. The frights are organic, created from a feel that has been carefully crafted for the viewer.
While the first two thirds of the film are a great atmospheric build-up, the last half-hour is where The Woman in Black really pays off. When we’re finally confronted with her in her home, the woman is vicious and unforgiving. The film that’s been relatively quiet thus far becomes loud and angry… this isn’t a spooky ghost, she’s a VIOLENT one. Buying into her danger is due in no small part to the 800 lb gorilla in the room: Yes, Harry Potter can actually act outside of Hogwarts. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) gets such an honest performance from Radcliffe, that you don’t even think of his old wizarding days. I know he’s young, but I never once had trouble buying into the relationship Arthur has with his son. Given the time the film is set in, it’s not unbelievable that a man in his early twenties would have a three year old child. Life expectancy just wasn’t the same then, you know? You had to start young, Doc. That said, if he wasn’t such a good actor, Radcliffe’s youth would have been yet another obstacle in the way of folks looking beyond his Potter past. One scene that stood out to me in particular has Kipps staring at a door that is being pounded on by something (possibly) supernatural. He moves towards the door and you can’t help but put yourself in his shoes. Would I open the door? Is there really anything to be scared of? His facial expressions say everything – you never even realize that he hasn’t spoken a word in nearly twenty minutes. It’s just an impressive performance.
The disc itself is pretty nice. Sony sent the DVD version for this review and it looks gorgeous. The picture is clean and sharp, with deep, dark blacks; a great transfer. If the SD version looks this good, I’d have to go on blind faith and say that the Blu Ray has got to be incredible. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is fantastic for what it is and makes great use of surround. As far as Special Features go, the Blu and DVD carry the same two featurettes and commentary track. Inside The Perfect Thriller: Making The Woman in Black is a ten minute set of interviews with the cast and crew about what they set out to achieve in making the film. No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps is just a little four minute puff piece on how great Daniel Radcliffe was in the movie… and as I mentioned earlier, he was. Not exactly the greatest bonus content, but the commentary track between Watkins and Screenwriter Jane Goldman is worth a listen. The film was based on a book which spawned a stage play as well as a television movie in the UK. It’s fun to listen to these two discuss some of the changes that were made for this telling of the tale, as well as hearing where some of the hidden images were staged. While six trailers for other Sony films were included, one for The Woman in Black was notably absent. Always a peeve of mine.
I have to give The Woman in Black 3 out of 4 angels. Fans of eerie gothic horror as well as Hammer enthusiasts will love this one, but be forewarned: If you buy this disc, you’re buying it solely for the movie, as the extras are weak. As far as DVDs go, this is a good purchase, but I have a feeling the picture and sound on Blu would be worth those additional greenbacks.