Tense and genuinely creepy, the Woman in Black delivers pretty much everything as promised from solid performances, understated but spot on effects and expert direction to make this the most satisfying filmed ghost story I have seen in years.
The Woman in Black tells the story of a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a man still reeling from the loss of his wife during childbirth four years ago, who is sent to a small village to handle the paperwork and sale of a newly vacant mansion. Once there, Kipps finds himself shunned by most of the villagers and told repeatedly he should be on the next train back to London. Threats from his boss at the law firm keep him resolute in his task and he goes up to the house to get it in order. Upon arriving there he begins to hear strange noises in house and eventually sees a woman dressed in black who promptly disappears after a swift investigation. He returns to the village to report what he has seen and finds himself held responsible for the sudden death of a local child. Rather than getting the hell out of dodge, Kipps presses on determined to finish his work and get to the bottom of the weird things going on in the town and the mansion.
I typically have a problem with ghost stories given my background in paranormal investigation and as much as I try to put that all aside and just enjoy the spooky stories, I really generally can’t. Because of this I am very hard to please with horror movies in general and ghost stories in particular. Probably the last two ghost story movies I have liked were both in 2001, the Others and Session 9. This being the case, I was delighted with The Woman in Black as it manages to present a really creepy ghost story that never comes off as cheesy or stupid. The creepiness and scares are very effective all the way through and it has an overall feel not unlike the Others. Maybe period ghost stories are inherently more effective than those based in modern times but if that is the case then I have no explanation for an American Haunting (actually I do and it is simple: Courtney Solomon is a hack. If you don’t believe me, see also: Dungeons and Dragons).
One of the things that makes the movie as taut and creepy as it manages is that it is not afraid of silence and it can therefore exploit the scary things found in silence. A good deal of the movie finds Kipps alone in the house with strange sounds and odd things happening and there is not a huge amount of talking. Even prior to the spectral goings on, the director, James Watkins, is confident enough to tell the story through visual cues and physical acting without resorting to reams of verbal exposition. For his part, Daniel Radcliffe conveys more emotion and information via look than a lot of actors manage in a 20 minute monologue. This stillness is really key to building the tension and the atmosphere in the movie and an undercurrent of desperation permeates every character we encounter.
The aforementioned desperation is useful to the story as well as it provides an ample explanation for why someone would continue to involve himself in supernatural shenanigans well after it is healthy to do so. Kipps is trying to care for his son, to provide for him and to pull himself out of the lost mire he finds himself in following the death of his wife. External pressure from his boss puts those goals at odds and you can see clearly that he would like nothing more than to flee to safety but that safety would only last as long as it would take to get fired. The ultimate wisdom shown here is later in question but given the available information at the time it appears to be the correct move.
Desperation also accounts for the behavior of the villagers who are not strange and off putting for the sake of the story but behave that way simply because they want their children to stop dying. This is again a refreshing departure from convention as often the residents of haunted towns tend to be odd just because that is creepy and they need to be odd for the story.
From a technical level, the tension and scares come courtesy of some truly thoughtful and well executed techniques. Light and dark are used very effectively to reveal hidden figures and the Woman in Black herself is used sparingly. She isn’t quite as absent from the early parts of the film as, say, the shark from Jaws, but Watkins does not overdo her appearances and every time she shows up it is effective on some level. Creepiness is a different thing than the cheaper thrills of a startle scare and Watkins knows that one is vastly more successful if first bolstered by the other. Toward that end, the startles that happen are set up in such a way as to be generally unexpected and still effective even when they are. One of my favorite gags is a moment when Kipps is investigating a child’s room filled with old (and enormously creepy) toys and the light from his candle reflects in the eyes of a toy monkey. The camera fixes on the eyes up close and the pinpoints of light make it look like the monkey’s gaze is following him. This is a simple move but it is very effective and builds the atmosphere enormously well.
A lot of interest for the film lies in Daniel Radcliffe as this is his first major film after Harry Potter and I can say definitively that he is not a one note flash in the pan actor. His performance here is adult, confident and spot on. He captures Kipps’s desperation and sadness perfectly and has just the right touch as he becomes more and more unhinged as the goings on in the house wear on him. I am looking very forward to seeing what Radcliffe does in the future.
Conclusion [9.5 out of 10]
The Woman in Black is the first good movie I have seen in 2012 and it is very good. Some people may be turned off by the period ghost story elements but if you are into creeping horror films that take the material seriously then you are coming to the right place. There is very little I would change about this film and it is a perfect example of how to do a ghost story right.