Art & Lit

The Woman in Black: Hammer’s haunted house of horrors

There are those who will criticise The Woman in Black, they will claim that the ending is drawn out and faintly ridiculous, that Daniel Radcliffe is a weak leading man and that the film occasionally descends into melodrama. Unfortunately, those people have rather missed the point. The Woman in Black has no pretensions to be the next Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, and as a haunted house story it is undeniably effective.

The film is an adaptation of a hugely successful novel and play but James Watkins and Jane Goldman, director and screenwriter respectively, play fast and loose with the source material. The protagonist, Arthur Kipps, has been turned from married man to widower and much of the action has been shifted away from the house to the neighbouring village, a tactic with both benefits and drawbacks.

Yet despite the shift in focus and substantial changes to the material, the film’s best moments are those taken straight from the book: the scenes when Radcliffe is alone in the house. The movie is made by Hammer, the company famous for revolutionising horror in the ‘60s, and in finest tradition it eschews subtlety almost entirely. We are treated to a string of visions, doors opening and shutting of their own accord, hints and unexplained noises. The famous rocking chair scene has survived the revamp, taking pride of place in Watkins’ box of shocks. There’s thunder, lightning, candlesticks and cobwebs; the whole thing is a mash of clichés, and the result is joyous.

Radcliffe does not do well in the lead role. Fortunately it makes no difference that he looks too young, his character is one-dimensional and his acting wooden. He might play the hero, but the real star of the piece is the gothic mansion; even the Addams family would think twice before going in. The place is isolated and decrepit, there’s a graveyard in the garden and a crow’s nest in one of the fireplaces. As haunted houses go, it’s up there.

All Radcliffe really has to do is walk around with a lamp and look scared while the set designers and cameramen do the real work. Subtle shifts in focus, cuts, zooms and gloriously spooky sets are the main attraction here. Tension builds as the evening progresses, unexplained occurrences get gradually larger and at my screening there were more than a few nervous chuckles at even the slightest touch of humour.

The scenes back in the village lack the same sparkle and tension. There’s more than a hint of The Wicker Man about the goings on; locals stare at the impostor and mutter. It’s clear from the moment Kipps steps off the train that there’s a secret everyone else knows, and they want him gone as soon as possible.

If you enjoy being spooked, if you want to be made to jump, then you should watch The Woman in Black. If you want a serious film instead, something that might have a lasting impact on the genre, get The Orphanage on DVD. The Woman in Black is unabashedly fun and flamboyant. It may not be perfect, indeed in many ways it is very flawed, but it succeeds in what it sets out to do, and in that respect it is not a bad film at all.

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