There’s a reason classic, well-worn themes become classics. The Woman in Black is not going to change the face of horror cinema. There is nothing in it that is shocking, never-before-seen or controversial. There is very little gore (indeed, approximately 50% of the film’s gore appears in a scene that has nothing to do with the titular ghost and simply reflects a toned-down version of Edwardian reality). It is a simple, straightforward haunted house story about a scary woman. Who wears black. What makes it a highly recommended and popular film is that it plays out this familiar story very, very well.
Young widower, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), is sent to ickily-named Eel Marsh House to process the paperwork of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. But as he arrives in the nearby village, no one seems terribly pleased to see him and when he travels out to the isolated house, cut off by the tide for hours every day, things only get worse.
For Hammer horror, a beloved but perhaps tired brand which had never done a ghost story before, taking on The Woman in Black, already an equally beloved and famously terrifying novel, television play and stage production was something of a gamble. It pays off thanks to the overall high quality of the film.
The story is told in an unhurried way that never feels slow, but offers an exercise that is well-judged and tension-building. Drenched in gothic atmosphere and gloomy visuals (fog, rain, ancient English buildings, women in elaborate costumes and the creepiest childrens’ toys you’ve ever seen) director James Watkins takes full advantage of the medium of film, opening the story out with some beautiful location filming. Wide shots of the causeway that connects the house to the mainland and the surrounding marshland are especially effective and provide a welcome contrast to the traditional gloomy, dusty imagery within the haunted house itself.
The script, from the ever-reliable Jane Goldman (following her work on Stardust and X-Men: First Class), keeps the heart of the story but adds fresh elements to keep fans of the other versions as much on the edge of their seats as new viewers. One of the quirks of The Woman in Black is that every version has a slightly different ending, and Goldman may have come up with the most emotionally satisfying version so far.
There’s no getting around the fact that Daniel Radcliffe is physically too young for this role. No Edwardian gentleman would get married at the age of 16 (as he would have had to, to be a widower with a four-year-old child by the age of 21). However, it’s worth suspending your disbelief and choosing to ignore this minor niggle, because Radcliffe’s performance is note-perfect.
Of course, Radcliffe has had a fair bit of practice at running around looking scared. Indeed, the odd unfortunate visual coincidence in some shots, of a hand-print on a window or a steam train driving through a dark and rainy night, may briefly take you out of the film and into a rather well-known earlier franchise. But it’s in the more demanding scenes that he really impresses, holding his new baby for the first time, drinking Scotch with Ciarán Hinds’ Arthur Daily or contemplating the afterlife. For a film of this sort, in which a few viewings will severely reduce the scare factor as familiarity kills all the shocks, it’s Radcliffe’s immensely likable and watchable presence that will keep you coming back to the DVD.
So many of this film’s scares come from indistinct, blurry images in the background, its impact may be reduced on smaller or non-widescreen television screens. However, on a relatively large widescreen set, it can be even scarier. Watched in daylight or in a packed cinema screen it’s scary; watched in the dark, alone, in an empty house, it’s terrifying.
A few minor edits were made to the film to get a 12A certificate when it was released and this is the version available here, which is occasionally frustrating as it would be nice to be able to see that slightly lighter colour palette and those extra six seconds that the BBFC felt were too frightening for 13-year-olds. However, the film as released is still a spooky delight, given depth and meaning through a touching undercurrent of love and loss played beautifully by Radcliffe and Hinds.
The DVD comes with a commentary from James Watkins and Jane Goldman, hidden under ‘set-up’ rather than listed with the other bonus materials, so some viewers might miss it. Director/screenwriter commentaries are often the best kind for anyone with an interest in film and the process of making films and this one is no exception. Light on amusing anecdote (though Goldman’s automata collection sounds entertainingly alarming), they provide an interesting and informative guide to the filming process, helped by being in the same room and able to bounce off each other throughout.
A particular bonus in this commentary is that Watkins gleefully points out all the subtle images of women and other assorted spooky things in the background, foreground and corners of shots, some of which Goldman herself had missed. It would be surprising if anyone has caught every single one of them so this is an especially welcome touch and reveals just how Watkins achieved the sense of creeping dread that pervades the film. Patient DVD viewers with one finger on the pause button will be well rewarded.
Unfortunately, most of the other extras are made up of promotional material produced before the films’ release (actors referring to a reluctance to give away details of plot is an always jarring reminder of this fact). The longest is a 22-minute ‘Red Carpet special’ which is largely fluff but offers a welcome opportunity to see the Woman (Liz White) out of costume.
The ten-minute ‘Making Of’ does include material for those who’ve seen the film and is worth watching for a few seconds of interview material with the source novel’s author Susan Hill. But otherwise the interviews, galleries, trailers and a few minutes set aside specifically for singing Daniel Radcliffe’s praises (however well-deserved on Radcliffe’s part) add little, other than to remind viewers that a substantial proportion of the film’s best shock moments were given away in various trailers and promotional TV specials.