Monday, February 13, 2012

Movie Review "The Woman In Black" by David Pretty

Greetings, Ghost-Facers!

Just by evoking the hallowed name of "Hammer Films" you conjure up all sorts of iconic and nightmarish imagery.  In the 1950's the venerable British studio began updating all of the classic Universal monster movies.  They did so by hiring top-shelf talent like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, staging the action on sumptuous sets and filming everything in lurid color.  This ensured that the audience didn't second guess itself whenever blood was shown on-screen, which, as it turned out, was quite often.

Hammer fell on dark times back in the competitive Eighties and eventually went dormant.  But not unlike a certain Transylvania count or Frankensteinian construct, the studio was resurrected in 2008 with the multi-part vampire serial Beyond The Rave and the English remake of Let The Right One In in 2010.

And now we have The Woman In Black, which brings the studio full-circle, back to a period setting which characterized so many of its earlier efforts.  Although the film does little to re-invent the wheel it does provides us with loads of atmosphere, sustained tension and some pretty inventive scares.

Here's the film's creepy-ass trailer:

Former "Boy Who Lived" / Chosen One Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, an earnest young lawyer who's going through a bit of a rough patch.  A recent widower, Arthur struggles to reconcile his wife's demise and explain her absence to their young son.  As if that isn't enough, he's tasked to settle the convoluted estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow or face termination.

He stops in a small village close to his destination and receives a downright chilly reception.  The only person predisposed to helping him is Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) a well-to-do land owner who's also struggling with  familial  loss.  The next day Arthur travels out to Eel Marsh house, a creepy mansion set on a Mont Saint-Michel-like island where the causeway disappears every night with the tide.

Almost immediately, odd things begin to happen.  Arthur hears weird disembodied noises all throughout the house and glimpses a black-clad woman skulking in the woods.  When he reports this to the authorities it seems to trigger a rash of horrific child suicides in the village. The townsfolk begin to attribute these tragedies to Arthur's sighting of the titular Woman In Black.   

Although the spectral occurrences in the mansion continue to worsen, Arthur is determined to complete his assignment and get to the bottom of the haunting.  He soon discovers that Alice Drablow shared the estate with her husband, son and sister and that the son, Nathaniel, was killed when their carriage went off the road and sunk into the mire.  Soon the truth is revealed about the family's less-then-conventional nature and the tragic events fueling the all ooga-boogery.

Right off the bat I knew that The Woman in Black was going to get a few key things right.  First off, director James Watkins is totally committed to grounding his ghost story in reality.  Yes, I know that location shoots are a pain the arse, but they also give movies an unmistakable feeling of authenticity.  Employing amazing locations such as Layer Marney Tower and Osea Island really give the story and its environs some tremendous weight.  Having said that, you could probably set up a camera anywhere in the fog-cloaked Essex country side and capture an incredible establishing shot for your own ghost story.

From Arthur's inflexible formal attire to the tumble-down garb worn by the villagers, the period costumes are all top-notch.  The attention to detail lavished on the production design is also incredibly evocative; like a Gothic version of Hoarders.  Every scene inside Eel Marsh House is a visual feast.  The creepy menagerie of wind-up mechanical dolls is the most unsettling collection I've seen on-screen since Blade Runner, conclusively proving that Victorians had more issues besides sexual repression.

Watkins seems genuinely inspired by the spooky environs.  Knowing that horror fans have seen every bloody permutation of creative grue, the producers have wisely eschewed excessive bloodletting in lieu of building atmosphere and tension.  I'm not really a big fan of jump-scares since I can usually anticipate them, but there are a few really creative ones, such as the eye staring back through the zoetrope and the reflection at the upstairs window.  The great thing is that many of these frights were apparently pulled off with in-camera practical effects instead of heavy-handed, illusion-shattering dollops of CGI. 

In fact, there are scenes in The Woman in Black that rival some of the best nerve-jangling sequences in The Changeling and The Others.  I'm encouraged that film-makers are becoming increasingly aware that creepy spiritual stuff really scares the ever-living crap out of people.  There are tons of things half-glimpsed in this film, resulting in a genuinely unsettling mood.  I spent half of my time looking for The Woman In Black somewhere in the hinterland of each frame, kind of like a ghoulish version of Where's Waldo?                     

Daniel Radcliffe brings a tremendous stiff upper lip to the role of Arthur.  Here he's tasked to move through large tracts of the movie completely alone and without the benefit of dialogue.  In most films of this ilk, you're often heaping abuse on the protagonist for poking around, but Radcliffe really sells the motivation.  He wants to succeed in his assignment, provide for his son and set things right.  His performance is wonderfully disciplined and the few times he flies off the handle it really feels genuine.

Even though the supporting characters are pretty negligible, there isn't one weak link.  Ciarán Hinds is appropriately aristocratic and shifty as Sam Daily.  Janet McTeer is also great as Sam's wispy wife Elizabeth.  It's interesting to see how the loss of their son impacts both character in different ways.  Sam refuses to humor the possibility of spiritual intervention and Elizabeth seems to have turned into a shade herself.  Liz White is also a tremendous presence as the eponymous Woman.  Whenever this statuesque dark figure appears on screen get ready to pee a little.

Some people will probably gripe about the story's logistics and balk at the antagonist's ability to influence the living.  I personally feel that as soon as you evoke spiritual powers, all bets are off and anything's possible.  Yahoos might also bitch about the film's dire ending, but I think it's bold, thematically relevant and strangely comforting.  Besides, when you evoke crazy, bat-shit insane spiritual powers, those bets aren't just off, they're taken out back behind the woodshed (if you catch my drift).

So, go see The Woman in Black if:
  • You believe that the pairing of CGI and horror makes as much sense as Rhianna singing with Coldplay
  • The words "Hammer Films" actually gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling.
  • Ghosts, fog-shrouded moors, creepy houses, and British kids all give you a case of the wiggins.     
  • You calmly ponder 'Hmmmm, I bet they did that with a healthy dollop of corn syrup, liquid latex, spirit gum and sheep's kidneys" whenever you watch gory scenes. 
  • You think that surveillance footage of a door opening and closing is about as scary as dryer lint.  
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