Guttering candles. Pale faces at windows. Mysterious noises from upstairs. They’re a few of the things commonly found in a classic ghost story, and Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman In Black contained all of them. A spectral mystery in the tradition of MR James, Hill’s novel was the subject of a popular stage play, a 1989 TV movie, a couple of radio adaptations, and now a new Hammer production starring Daniel Radcliffe.
The question is, how is it possible to adapt such a traditional story in a way that modern audiences will find even remotely frightening? Many of the ghost story trappings listed above are now so familiar, and so constantly parodied, they’re almost cosy, like an episode of Heartbeat or Highway To Heaven.
Director James Watkins’ answer to this problem is simple: there’s nothing wrong with the familiar and the generic, as long as the material’s approached with enthusiasm and conviction. The result is a modern supernatural horror that is old-fashioned yet extremely effective.
It’s the early Edwardian era, and young London lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is summoned to the isolated town of Crythin Gifford to settle the legal affairs of a reclusive widow. On arrival, Kipps is confronted by several increasingly unsettling mysteries: why are the town’s inhabitants so intent on sending him back to London? Why are the townsfolks’ children dying in weird circumstances, and what do these deaths have to do to with Eel Marsh House, the remote dwelling of the late widow?
You might think that The Woman In Black’s success hinges on the talents of Daniel Radcliffe. This is, after all, his first film since he graduated from Hogwarts, and the first film in which he’s asked to play an adult (complete with facial hair) rather than a schoolboy wizard. And at first, Radcliffe still seems a little too young to play the widowed father to a four-year-old boy. His voice is a couple of tones to high, his face still a little too fresh.
Gradually, though, it becomes easier to forget that it’s the chap who played Harry Potter who’s creeping around a haunted house with a candle in his hand, and while Radcliffe doesn’t quite convince as a well-to-do Victorian gentleman when he opens his mouth, he’s extremely good at looking frightened. His blue eyes shine luminously in the darkness, as all sorts of unholy shadows lurk behind fluttering curtains and heavy oak doors.
It helps that Radcliffe’s joined by an excellent supporting cast. Ciarán Hinds is great as a wealthy landowner, and Janet McTeer is equally good as his traumatised wife, who dresses her dogs up in sailor outfits and has to be restrained from wrecking the dinner table.
The real revelation here, though, is James Watkins. His urgent direction makes what could have been a fairly predictable, by-the-numbers tale seem fresh and frequently terrifying. This reaches its height during a sustained sequence in which both Kipps and the audience are repeatedly scared out of their wits by various spooks and things that go bump in the night. How you’ll react to such stuff is entirely down to your own state of mind, nervous disposition and caffeine intake, but for this writer, The Woman In Black’s supernatural set-pieces were quite harrowing.
Best of all, these moments of terror are due to great lighting, cinematography and editing rather than gore – as is the case in all the best ghost stories, The Woman In Black’s all about the anticipation of horror rather than its explicit depiction. It’s the kind of film that constantly teases the audience with glimpses of distant figures or creaking floorboards, which is something rarely seen these days, at least outside the Paranormal Activity series.
Jane Goldman deserves praise here for finding her own slant on Susan Hill’s novel, and many of her alterations are logical and successful ones, all building up to a conclusion that, although not difficult to see coming, is fittingly grim.
The film’s reconstruction of the austere Edwardian age, all bustling dresses, starched suits and steam engines, is pleasing, too – though there are a few anachronisms dotted about if you really want to nit-pick. Some of the dialogue is more 21st than 19th century (a child would never address an adult they’d just met by their first name, for example), and I was rather alarmed at the almost total absence of hats.
Nevertheless, The Woman In Black is a direct, simple ghost story told with real energy. It’s also great to see the Hammer name appear at the start of a film once again – now there’s at least one ghost from the past I’m genuinely glad to see looming out of the darkness.