February 9, 2012

Movie Review: The Woman in Black

Way back in the 1950s and 1960s Hammer Studios was a force to be reckoned with. They crafted some of the finest gothic horror films ever with a distinct look and feel, you always knew when you were watching Hammer. Not to mention the studio making Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing household names in movies like Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and The Mummy. The studio was dormant for decades until just recently when they teamed up to produce Let Me In. They also put out the execrable The Resident and the solid Wake Wood. Now they have released what may be the most Hammer title since the 1960s, The Woman in Black.

This movie is an old fashioned, old school, ghost story that puts us right into a creepy mansion where things go bump in the night and souls rattle around the halls, unsettled and seeking revenge. It is based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill and has also been turned into a stage play and a made for TV movie back in 1989. Here it has been adapted by Jane Goldman, whose credits include Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class, Stardust, and The Dent. The directorial duties were handled by James Watkins, who has developed quite the horror resume with the likes of The Descent 2, Eden Lake, and My Little Eye. Together, Goldman and Watkins have crafted a deliciously malevolent tale that is as unsettling as it is alluring.

The Woman in Black tells the story of a young widower father and associate lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe). He is perpetually sad, as captured in drawing form by his four year old son, and in an effort to retain his job and prove his worth has been charged with putting the Eel Marsh estate paperwork in order following the death of the last resident.

Kipps heads off to handle the job, but upon arriving in the small town finds he is less than welcome. I seems like everyone just wants to put him back on the train to London and forget any of it ever happened. Now, rather than question just what the heck is going on, even in the face of some mysterious deaths and the appearance of a ghostly woman in the mansion, Kipps remains steadfast in his desire to do his job.

Still, things get creepier. As he works on the paperwork, strange accidents befall local children, the ghostly woman seems to appear out of nowhere, objects move and creak all on their own. The only help Kipps has is from the kindly, but mysterious, Mr. Daily (Ciaran Hinds). Kipps realizes what happened and goes about making the amends needed in an effort to satisfy the woman in black. But will it be enough?

The plot of The Woman in Black is simple enough. It plays like a standard ghost story of a wronged dead person seeking revenge while the living victims must find a way to make some sort of amends before they become dead victims. Still, it doesn't matter how simple the story is if he execution works. Here we have an exceedingly well crafted creep show. This is a movie for those afraid of things that go bump in the night, wonder if someone ever died in the home you just moved into, are creeped out by old mansions, or will jump at the slightest unexpected sight.

The Eel Marsh estate is set on an overgrown spot of land that is periodically cut off from town by high tide, not to mention a healthy dose of fog. The home itself is a marvel of design, worn down, morose, foreboding, and just what you want when need a location that makes the hair on your neck stand up. This movie is no character study, it is about looking into the darkness and hoping it is not looking back into you.

The movie moves at a steady pace, allowing the setting sink in and do its work on your psyche. It builds and builds, dropping its hints along the, growing to a climax that is both expected and surprising. It is a movie that will shake you and leave you somewhat happy but also a good deal shaken as the bittersweet final images play out on the screen.

Daniel Radcliffe does a fine job in his first major role that is not named Harry Potter. He still looks to be a bit to the young side (I mean, he still is really young), but he more than holds his own and looks to be able to break any Potter typecasting. I think it helps that his role here is a sedate one that more often than not is more interested in you exploring the screen than looking at him. Also, Ciaran Hinds does a nice job as the one friend Kipps has, although he clearly has something to hide. Likewise, the cast has a number of smaller supporting bits that add to the overall effect.

Basically, the one thing I can say is that you should see this movie. It is definitely an old school sort of movie that does not rely on blood, sex, or language. It is the sort of movie you can take a teen to and freak them out a bit. It is not perfect, but it knows what it wants to be and does a good job of doing it.



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