A Good, Old-Fashioned Ghost Story
After watching the new movie, The Woman in Black, I asked my friends, “Why is it that people are afraid of ghosts?” Think about it. Except for the ghosts in American Horror Story that take corporeal form to mate and murder, what can ghosts really do to harm you? I suppose they can be scary-looking, if you believe that they have the same appearance as they did at the time they died. And, if they’re poltergeists, I supposed they could throw a heavy piece of furniture at you.
In The Woman in Black, the ghost is scary because when anyone sees her, a child kills itself. But, as Daniel Radcliffe wanders the halls of a deserted mansion late at night, he is not yet aware of this fact. That may explain his curiosity. And, taking place in what I assume is the early-1900’s, he has not seen all the horror films to heed the warning, “Don’t open the door!”
All of this is to say that The Woman in Black is a good, old-fashioned ghost story. Forget any preconceived notions you have about how it should unfold and simply enjoy it. There is no fancy camerawork and there are no over-the-top special effects; instead, its thrills are dependent upon the atmosphere it creates.
What an atmosphere it is! If you’re unclear of the term “gothic”, The Woman in Black defines it. The sun never shines; it is constantly murky outside. There’s a thunderstorm. There’s an isolated mansion full of secrets hidden deep in a marsh. There’s not only an old graveyard, but also a giant cross planted deep in the marsh. As David DeVore writes in “The Gothic Novel”, “It (the gothic setting) not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world.”
And, since it’s a ghost story, there are strange noises, empty chairs rocking and mysterious fingerprints on the windows. The centerpiece of The Woman in Black is the aforementioned wandering of Radcliffe through the mansion. It’s a long sequence that seems like about half the entire movie (which clocks in at just over 90 minutes). But it’s great! Although, there are false scares, they are well-earned. My only complaint is that as they continue, the movie flirts with relying too much on explosions of music to startle the audience.
The scenes that bookend this sequence succinctly tell a simple story. The front end sets the scene: young lawyer, widower and father Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels from London to a remote village to review the estate of a deceased (and scorned) woman. The action picks up on the back end as Kipps races to solve the mystery before his son (and potential victim of the woman in black) arrives in town for a visit. This is the weakest part of the story.
There’s a deeper question, barely hinted, yet sprinkled throughout, of what happens to us when we die. Most characters in the story don’t really believe in ghosts, but at some point, each is given reason to doubt their beliefs. Kipps feels his dead wife with him and suspects there must be something more. On the other hand, the father of one dead child is certain that the dead go nowhere.
It’s this man’s wife who does believe and may in fact be the other side’s channel to this world. She goes into trances and carves cryptic drawings into wood and stone. She’s an interesting part of the movie, but oddly, doesn’t ultimately have much effect on the story. I almost didn’t think to include her in this review.
The Woman in Black is based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, which was previously filmed as a British TV movie in 1989. I can’t speak for the new movie’s faithfulness to the original story, but I think it surely stands on its own. The screenplay is written by Jane Goldman, on a great run following Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. It’s directed by genre up-and-comer James Watkins (Eden Lake and writer/assistant director of The Descent II.)
I wonder what audiences will think about the ending. My friends didn’t like it, but I thought it perfectly tied everything together, satisfactorily providing an answer to the questions it raised. I liked The Woman in Black a lot, totally surrendering to its gothic setting. Daniel Radcliffe, present in nearly every scene, is perfectly fine as Kipps, with nary a hint of Harry Potter in his performance. But for some reason, probably the back bookend, I didn’t love it, resulting in the less-than-perfect rating below.