Good ghost stories are hard to find on film these days – and directors, I would argue, know as much. Of course, there are myriad reasons for the glut of endurance horrors we have had in recent years, but at least part of that must stem from the fact that it is far more difficult to scare than to repel. If in doubt, excruciating attention to grisly detail will win the day. This is a shame, because it is becoming tedious and it is a hell of a thing, as an audience member, to find something as vile as torture tedious.
As much as some very good films have utilised this type of horror, I am always intrigued by new films which break away from this approach and get back to what got me into horror in the first place – the thrill of fear. And so, when Hammer announced a new adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman in Black, I was quietly optimistic. Having attended an early screening of the film last night, I am pleased to say that my optimism was not unfounded. This is what I think of when I think of Hammer: style, well-realised period detail and a pervasive atmosphere. But, where director James Watkins really breaks away from the tradition of Hammer films which preceded his is by offering something else: the overarching feel of this film is of the malignancy of grief and loss, which lends something altogether more unsettling here than was ever realised in the gloriously lurid Hammers of years gone by. If any one word summed up this film, it would be ‘dread’.
In an early sequence which shows just how Jane Goldman’s screenplay differs from the structure of the novella, we meet young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) and see the happiness of a marriage and the arrival of a young son immediately conflated with death; since the death of his wife in childbirth, Mr. Kipps has been struggling to support his young son, now four years old, and as such takes a job settling the estate of a widow in a remote village in the north east of England. Everyone he meets in the village there shows great reluctance to help him; the widow’s former home, Eel Marsh House, he gathers, has a chequered history and the village itself has mourned the loss of a disproportionate number of children – even by the standards of a remote community around the turn of the twentieth century.
Determined to complete the work he has been assigned, though, Kipps defies the villagers in order to go to the house itself. As he sifts through the many papers and letters there, he begins to piece together the unwholesome story of the house’s former inmates. But who is the woman dressed in high mourning he sees outside, when he happens to glance through the window? Kipps finds his rationality – already pushed to breaking point by his own bereavement, and his wish to believe that his wife is still near him – increasingly squeezed, both by the evidence of his own senses and by stories from the village. Eel Marsh House has not given up all of its secrets yet.
Firstly, it was a real pleasure to see something so quintessentially British on screen. We Brits have a strong tradition of ghostly storytelling, and the tale told here really did feel like part of that tradition. The locations – actually, four separate locations were used, in different parts of England – work extremely well, although to me, with the yellow stone and wuthered hillsides, this film is Yorkshire through and through. The period detail is well-realised and beautiful, too. The aesthetics of late Victorian England work so well as a backdrop for horror; the veiled women, the heady interiors, the mix of harsh utilitarianism and macabre décor…it just chimes. The children’s toys in this film could have their own genre of horror, in all honesty.
However, aesthetics on their own would never be enough. Nor do they have to be. Goldman and Watkins have sensibly avoided remaking the first, excellent adaptation of the story by Nigel Kneale, which holds a place in the hearts of many people terrified by it in the 1980s, instead crafting a ghost story with a strongly-realised central protagonist whose back story gives an impetus to all of his later actions. Daniel Radcliffe does a very good job here, and evidently wants to carve a non-Harry Potter acting career for himself by taking on drastically different roles. He’s talented; not many actors could communicate so much in such a dialogue-lite film, where looks have to tell all about the internal state of mind. If I was going to quibble at all about his casting, it would be to say that he is only just believable as a bereaved husband and father of a four year old son; course, life was shorter then, and people did marry at a younger age, but as Radcliffe is a young-looking person of his age anyway, he only just gets away with it. He’s an interesting casting choice, all told. Certainly, a lot of people who are fans because of the Harry Potter films may well find themselves going to see a genre of film they might not usually see, so this is one horror which will have a more varied audience than usual. How this will pan out, I do not know. We’ll either get a clutch of new genre film fans or people disappointed because they are madly in love with his earlier incarnation. The important thing is that his performance as Kipps holds an ambitious spin on a well-known story together.
And this is an ambitious spin on the story, make no doubt about that; as mentioned above, The Woman in Black has reworked the structure of the novella, but also, this new film shows the evidence of influences by other, recent ghost story films. These influences may divide audiences to a degree, because something which shines through here is the impact of J-horror. Now, this is in many ways unsurprising: although we have become jaded by the formulaic nature of many Far Eastern ghost stories in recent years, there’s no doubt that the best of these have offered us some truly evocative, creepy horror. Ring, in particular, has obviously had an influence on The Woman in Black – but not in the most obvious way which you might expect: here are no crawling, long-haired spectres. You will also see shades of The Orphanage here, evident, again, in the difference between this film and the original story. How you feel about this will depend on your dedication to the novella, if you have it, how much you enjoyed those other movies, and how well you feel the new influences sit together. For me, I was by and large pleased with how it all worked, although – although – the one thing which stopped The Orphanage being as brilliant as it might have been is repeated in The Woman in Black.
Where I would criticise the film is in its sometime-usage of rather ‘jumpy’ scares. It’s not minute-to-minute by any means but there are some…now, a little goes a very long way with this type of effect, and there are more than I thought the film needed. The scenes which really made my skin crawl, and it’s worth reiterating that yes, this film achieved that on several occasions, were the quieter moments. A figure glimpsed out of the corner of the eye…a child peering through a half-open door…half light and uncertainty really establish the scares here, and while a few louder scares up the ante, too many of these risk that palpable sense of dread.
Overall, however, this is a fine piece of storytelling. While I have seen the film criticised for Radcliffe’s emotionally-barren performance, I thought that it was exactly what you might expect from a very young man in such circumstances. Some slight flashiness does not detract from the pleasing English Gothic vibe of this film, nor does it take anything away from the dank, heavy sadness which casts its spell over the story and its characters. The Woman in Black is another score for Hammer, and proof positive that you do not need gallons of blood to make an impact in modern horror.