When young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe
) is sent to an isolated mansion to handle the affairs of a recently deceased woman, he comes under scrutiny from the terrified locals who want him to stay away from Eel Marsh House. It turns out, for good reason.
The Woman in Black
is bound to drum up interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s the post-Potter
debut of Daniel Radcliffe
. The actor has always been keen to continue his film career without the support of the boy who lived and fans will be eager to see him take on a more mature role. The film is also the latest adaptation of Susan Hill’s
1983 novel, which has already been the subject of a massively successful 1987 stage adaptation – running for more than 20 years – as well as a 1989 made for TV movie. What’s more, it’s the fifth major project from the newly revitalised Hammer Horror Studios
These elements, plus a highly effective marketing campaign, have ensured that the anticipation for The Woman in Black
is unusually high and that may be to its detriment.
It’s not that the film is bad exactly, just that it never lives up to the promise of the imagined terrors of a creepy old house and an even creepier lady wandering its halls. It’s not for lack of trying – director James Watkins
(who also helmed Eden Lake
) throws every eerie device into the mix, creaking doors, scary children, unexplained deaths and enough shadowy goings on in the background to fill a dozen similar films.
He’s aided by superbly gothic production design from frequent Danny Boyle
collaborator Kave Quinn
, who fills each frame with sumptuously layered detail, drawing your eye deep into the picture. And it’s all brilliantly lensed by Tim Maurice-Jones
Sadly, it’s beyond the tech credits that things begin to falter and they start with Radcliffe
himself. From the off he’s simply too fresh-faced and spry to be a father and widower, looking awkward in his brief interactions with his on screen son and never conveying any real sense of despair other than a patina of blank stares. Later, when he’s purely required to look pants-wettingly terrified, he frequently conjures up the same expression. It’s a massive barrier to audience identification – if he isn’t scared, why should we be?
It doesn’t help that the threads of the story are erratically connected at best. At its most basic level, Kipps’ motivation is unconvincing – despite the bone-chilling events going on around him, he remains convinced that he must stay in the house to do his paperwork. Seriously, dude, get another job. In a similar vein, there’s a whole town of miserable people who live under a curse which threatens to claim the lives of their kids at any given moment. Why the hell don’t they just move?
The Woman is also problematic, bound by neither location nor any obvious rules. When she’s mooching around in the background, things are moderately tense but as soon as she makes her presence felt… well there’s only so much you can do with a woman who’s main form of terrorisation is standing there and looking at stuff.
The film does conjure up some jump scare moments, even a few that don’t rely solely on screeching music cues but the creeps are overwhelmingly mechanical – with appearances by the Woman in Black occurring with almost metronomic regularity. For the record, things moving around unseen behind our protagonist soon become boring. And why can’t these characters remember to close doors after themselves!?
The Woman in Black
wears its genre disguise well with some wonderful design work but a miscast lead, repetitive scares and a lack of significant terror, even for the target teen audience, means you’ll sleep all too soundly after watching it.