A young lawyer travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.
Walking into this, the second screen adaptation of Susan Hill's wonderful THE WOMAN IN BLACK, I was a roiling cocktail of mixed emotions. I love the 1989 TV version with a passion. I believe it to be one of the most chilling and effective ghost stories ever put to screen, and have rarely seen its equal, on the small screen or the large. So I was understandably worried about the very real threat of a big budget remake. Experience has taught me that when it comes to classic ghost stories, big budgets and subtlety rarely compliment each other.
So far, the re-emergence of Hammer has produced a mixed bag of goodies. Their first release, WAKE WOOD, inspired me to write my first ever review, (you can read the review here), and to build this here Horror Hotel, as it now exists, . WAKE WOOD was a refreshingly old school tale that managed in many ways to capture a number of staples of the Hammer classics, and bring them into a modern environ. It was a fine start, though it was still some distance from the lush grandeur of HORROR OF DRACULA, THE GORGON, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN et all...
The next two films had less of an impact on me. THE RESIDENT was a generic, pointless and bland retread of overly familiar Hollywood 'thriller' tropes, and didn't impress me, (or anyone in the western hemisphere), in the slightest, yet their take on John Ajvide Lindqvist's stunning novel, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, titled somewhat redundantly LET ME IN was absolutely solid. Problem was, it had been done before, and better, only a few years previous, in the Swedish masterpiece, titled (quite correctly), LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. It rendered the film somewhat null and void to anyone other than those strange beings who walk among us, believing every film worth seeing must be in spoken English, and must be filmed in America. No matter how good it was, it had no purpose to those who could read above a fourth grade level.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK, on the other hand, was a story that felt custom built for 'The studio That Dripped Blood'. It covered all the landmarks. Desolate town, off-kilter townsfolk, an old dark house, a dark spectre of evil looming over a small community, and last but certainly not least, it was a period piece. Could this be the return of traditional, classic Hammer? Excitement and apprehension are strange bedfellows, so it was with queasiness of tummy and steeliness of resolve that I braved the cinema to take on this new adaptation of the truly haunting tale. I'm glad I did. I enjoyed the film, in some ways even loved it, but not unreservedly.....
Right off the bat, its very clear that director James Watkins (EDEN LAKE) is hellbent on recreating the glory days of Hammer that so many of us cherish. The film looks absolutely beautiful from frame one. I've rarely seen a film that so perfectly captures the Technicolour glory of the classics as this one. In all the years between Hammers fall and recent resurrection, only Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW pulled off this trick with real success. Unlike Burton's film though, THE WOMAN IN BLACK has its visuals grounded in murky, muddy reality, and like the classics, much is shot on location, adding to its uniquely British flavour, and removing it from Burton's over-abundance of the fantastical. The film is awash in stunning imagery, from the chilly, lived in, old world town that's held under the titular 'Womans' spell, to the causeway that crosses vast expanses of fog enshrouded marshes, and finally to the 'old dark house' itself, Eel Marsh Manor...perhaps the most beautifully over-designed haunted mansion ever put to screen. Rivalling the great set designs of THE GORGON, (review here ) and DRACULA : PRINCE OF DARKNESS is its Gothic splendour. With its rooms full of glass-eyed dolls, dark purple draperies, blood red corridors and dark, secret spaces; the huge, decrepit manor is the epitome of a classic haunted locale. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and yes, Vincent Price, (in his Corman/Poe era), could happily haunt these endless shadowy hallways, (were it not for the house's resident spectre, of course).
The only way THE WOMAN IN BLACK could feel more like traditional Hammer were if it was filmed in Technicolour, and had James Bernard doing the score. I wish it had both these attributes, I really do. At any rate, to see so traditional and old-fashioned a Horror movie in modern cinema's, is indeed enough to make any classic-lovers heart sing. And mine sure did. The success of this film, thanks in large to its major player, Daniel Radcliffe, may also inspire a new, younger audience to discoever the classics, and that it something to be celebrated, surely.
And Radcliffe is surprisingly good here. I had my doubts about the guy in this role. I loved him as Harry Potter, of course, but that was a huge burden to carry into the rest of his adult career. For Eight films we've all watched him grow...from child, to teen, to man. Getting past the persona of Mr Potter is a massive fucking challenge. And I'm pleased as punch he managed to pull it off. The kids a national treasure after all. He's family, and we all want to see him do well, and thank Cthulthu, he does. Turns out Radcliffe is a very strong actor. He puts in a mature, pained and subtle performance that is never overshadowed by the beautiful visuals and locations that surround him. His character, Arthur Kipp, is the heart and soul of the tale, and it needed an actor with some clout, and an understanding of loss, and it got one. For some, he may seem a little young to be a father of a 4 year old, but in my shitty neighbourhood, having a kid at eighteen is considered positively geriatric, so it didn't phase me at all. Most will still see the ghost of Harry Potter behind Daniel's eyes, initially; but soon, you'll forget all about the 'boy who lived' and start worrying about 'the man who's in deep shit'. Taking on this role was a very wise move on Radcliffe's part, and its payed off. It should be noted that he spends huge portions of time alone and with no dialogue here, and he nails the mannerisms, sense of fear, and inherent courage, (or stupidity) that lies in the heart of Kipp. Good work, son. Good work.
The supporting cast don't get much of a look in, sadly; although what we do get is good stuff. Cairan Hinds is great as the kindly and haunted 'Daily' , and Janet McTeer, as his wife, makes the most of her few scenes to bring an extra chill to the already cold and clammy atmosphere that the film invokes. The villagers don't get anywhere near enough screen time, and it appears the film has been edited heavily for time, (lets hope we see an extended home version), but even so, that's in keeping with the Hammer tradition. If the villagers are not fully rounded characters, that's because the locations are characters in and of themselves, and alongside Radcliffe and 'The Woman', they take centre stage.
And what of the dark spectre herself? Well, she's still a pretty damn terrifying force. She's onscreen far more than she was in the TV version, but as with that adaptation, even when she's not shown, her presence is felt at all times. From the very first scene to the very last, her malice hangs over the story like a poisonous vapour. I've always held to the belief that she is the main inspiration for much of the J-Horror output we've seen in the last few decades. Sadako from RINGU, and that creepy gal from JU-ON owe a great debt to 'Jennet'. They share her unending need for vengeance, and the same sense of inevitable doom that permeates those tales, in ever present in Jennet's realm. She remains one of the most disturbing embodiments of evil yet put to paper, or screen. There are a few moments here that could have been handled with greater care, (her scream is nowhere near as nerve-shredding as seen in the earlier work) but overall, shes a pretty terrifying being. The previous movies version was often far scarier than what we get in this new film, but even so, she has some seriously hair-raising moments, and often had me cowering like a lil girl. Theres just something about Jennets nature that scares me. Always has, always will.
At ninety minutes, the film flies along, and Watkins deserves respect for managing to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the viewer, in such a short time. In fact, in one extended, dialogue-free scene that lasts for twenty minutes and is seriously frightening, he fills the screen with more scares, ghostly imagery and chills than most other ghost stories can muster in their entire run time. Great stuff. On the downside, the first half of the movie does have a number of 'jump-scares' which only cater to the A.D.D members of modern audiences, and cheapen the overall feel of suspense. Its a shame that the classic feel the film exudes couldn't be maintained throughout the entire show. The more 'modernised' scare tactics are really unnecessary and dilute the fear, (its final scene has nowhere near the impact or sense of tragedy that the original held).
Terrance Fisher would be proud....mostly.
8 Living Dolls out of 10