Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Woman in Black (2012): Review

The Woman in Black is the first period Hammer Horror film in 36 years. Not only did this set my own expectations high, as someone with great affection for vintage Hammer, but it is also the resurrected studio’s first attempt at mainstream success since 2010’s Let Me In. The Woman in Black is directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake) and stars recent Hogwarts alumni Daniel Radcliffe. Adapted from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, the film takes place in the typically gothic 19th century, and the typically miserable English countryside.

We follow Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps, a young bereaved lawyer and single parent, as he’s given his final chance by his firm to prove himself before being out on his ear. Unfortunately for Kipps, this involves travelling from London to a remote and hostile village in the north east of England to attend to the affairs of a recently deceased local woman. We soon discover that the source of the villager’s hostility relates to the ominous Eel Marsh house, and more specifically to Kipps’ insistent probing of the secrets surrounding it. Through his visits to Eel Marsh, and the help of the solitary friendly local Sam Daily (Ciaron Hinds), Kipps unravels the mystery of the eponymous woman, and her connection to a string of local tragedies.

The strongest talent on display here is James Watkins as director. It’s hard to believe that this is only his second film as he gives an absolute master-class in suspense and atmosphere. As in his debut Eden Lake, Watkins proves very adept at expertly building a sense of sheer dread. This is most prominent during Kipps’ overnight stay at Eel Marsh where the ebb and flow of the jump scares and bluffs transform clichéd horror techniques into truly gripping cinema. The only downside to this peak of tension is that it comes two thirds of the way into the film, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the ending. Watching this film in a packed cinema, as my wife and I did, there was a really noticeable dip in the tension after this crescendo.

Undoubtedly, this film also serves as a test for Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role. Radcliffe’s real life age of 23 and his youthful looks (and slight stature) don’t quite lend him the necessary gravitas to play a fully trained lawyer and widower of some four years. Conversely, this also works in his favour as he’s able to play the male lead as a more vulnerable and realistic character as opposed to the typical horror hero. Despite his immature years, Radcliffe still manages to hold his own throughout prolonged scenes with no dialogue, through a kind of silent film technique (albeit with the occasional VERY loud noise).

Ultimately, The Woman in Black is a shining example of what can be achieved through suspense and psychological horror, after a decade of gratuitous “torture-porn” flicks. James Watkins’ clear understanding of the genre elevates the film above clichés and predictable cheap scares. This is a fitting homage to the classic Hammer films of yesteryear whilst also tipping the hat towards the more modern ghost stories to emerge from South East Asia in more recent years. Hammer Horror is surely back for good and while we wait for their next release, I can only suggest that younger fans delve into the crypt of vintage Hammer films in the meantime.

4 stars * * * *

What did you think of The Woman in Black?


  1. First period horror in 36 years... that certainly puts it in perpsective! (Not least, for me, because that's almost my lifetime.)
    It makes it seem even more admirably confident: I didn't get any feeling of nervousness or indecision, which there was in The Resident.

    I had no idea this was the same director as Eden Lake: pretty much the kind of movie I most hate.

    The big question is what should they do next to keep the momentum going?