Directing for Hammer Horror, James Watkins (Eden Lake) brings The Woman in Black to the big screen, complete with a much anticipated new role for Daniel Radcliffe. Critics have taken to the film with beady eyes, highlighting the simplicity of the plot, addressing the sparse characterisation and treating Radcliffe’s performance with pedantic scrutiny. When all is considered though, their in depth examination seems laughable in the face of what is a first-rate horror film like one we haven’t seen in years.
Based on Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black tells the tale of a young solicitor and single father, Arthur Kipps who heads to a desolate mansion on the English coast to see to a deceased woman’s paperwork. Kipps has a young son to provide for and the sadness of his wife’s death (who died in child birth) still hangs upon his shoulders. Upon arriving he is informed by the locals that he should not visit the mansion, as they believe it is haunted by a darkly clad female apparition. Applying reason to the situation Kipps decides to see the job through, as he must prove his worth to his employer for fear of losing his job.
Radcliffe’s first serious non-Harry Potter performance is in good hands with James Watkins who gives him a mature role, playing a grief stricken father. While Radcliffe’s acting range is discernible, Watkins plays to his strengths allowing us to invest suitably in his dilemma. Building the authenticity of the story Watkins selects some superb locations, particularly the mansion itself – the design team dressed Cotterstock Hall in East Northamptonshire to create the epically creepy Eel Marsh House.
Watkin’s shooting style brings to mind classics of the horror genre, notably Psycho, Halloween and Alien. The movement of the characters and the coordinated use of close ups and shallow depth of field keep us on edge knowing that something sinister is lurking near-by. The design and lighting combine to give us a sense that the woman in black herself is omnipresent, building a constant sense of tension. Use of CGI is limited and thankfully so – often the effects feel like some of the cheapest tricks, but Watkins reins it in. He also deserves credit for rejecting the initial proposal that the film should be shot in 3D – this would have destroyed the classical creep of the Edwardian set story.
Amping up the scares towards the end, in a fashion particularly comparable to Halloween Watkins makes The Woman in Black first and foremost a thrill ride, but this is not to say that the film lacks substance. The payoff requires credible emotional investment from the audience and it carries it off with precision, allowing the fear of the woman in black to make a real impression. This film, like the novel it is adapted from, is designed to haunt you after it has ended. Perhaps when you are home alone, or just going to bed it will come back to give you one extra scare – when you buy tickets to see a horror film that is what you pay for and The Woman in Black welcomely delivers.