Modern horror films are such a mixed bag that it’s often difficult to disseminate the genuinely hair raising from the expectedly predicable and droll; for every Insidious there are dozens of The Wolfman (2010). Seemingly taking a cue from the former, The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) and directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake), tells the tale of young lawyer Arthur Kipps whose employer charges him with settling the last legal affairs of Alice Drablow in a small town off the cold, blustery coast of England.
Right away it’s made clear that Arthur Kipps is a man left broken by the death of his wife during child birth. He lives only to be there for his son, but it’s obvious that he isn’t really living at all, a fact which does not escape the limited observational skills of his four-year-old son. Radcliffe takes the role on with serious steadfastness and doesn’t disappoint when given the chance to demonstrate his acting chops independent of the film series which made him star. He plays Kipps as subdued, like someone going through the motions of life with no joy for living; he’s a door that’s slightly ajar.
And so Mr.Kipps is dispatched to the sleepy village with the warning that if he fails this assignment, he will lose his job and be unable to support his son. It’s at this point the pedigree of Hammer Films begins to shine through, as this period piece makes excellent use of the rustic countryside settings. The Drablow house screams classic Hammer with its former opulence turned delapidation; its destroyed beauty. It strikes a nostalgia cord that will resonate with many classic Hammer horror fans.
As he arrives in the village, Kipps meets Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds who was also in the last two Harry Potter films with Radcliffe), a well to do land owner who’s also the only person in the county to own a car. It’s clear from the outset that Daily and his wife are the only folks who approve of Kipps’ presence; the rest of the townsfolk give him the classic horror film small town cold shoulder. They aren’t without provocation as the young lawyer’s mere presence seems to reawaken the vengeful woman in black, who’s appearance foreshadows the deaths of many children around the village.
This ghost story works on several levels, mostly playing off of the excellent atmosphere and setting; the Drablow house is surrounded by marshland and only accessible via a causeway which is cut off during high tide. Also working to the advantage of the filmmakers: Kipps is the ballsiest horror film character I’ve seen in years. And this makes sense as his life is a hollow, he doesn’t feel like he has anything to continue living for besides his son and that makes him the perfect vehicle for us to ride along with, forcing us to keep looking when most rational folks would have left the town, found a new job and moved on.
Regarding the scares perpetrated on us moviegoers, there are a bunch of jump scares with their crescendo then explosion of sound. Toward the beginning of the film there were a concerning number of them. My fears were assuaged as it progressed since it became clear that the jump scares were being used to set the scene for actual tension-filled sequences and tingly hair raising.
The Woman in Black is an entertaining piece that leverages a minimal budget to excellent nostalgic effect. It dips into the ghost horror genre and rubs the itch of those who enjoy their scares mixed with the trappings of days long gone. A promising return for Hammer Films.
The Woman in Black opens today in Philly-area theaters.