You don’t get a ton of ghost stories anymore like the one featured in The Woman in Black. It’s as traditional as you can get, deciding that the scariest things in the world are shadows and objects working without an operator — not gore, guts, and blood. No real twists, very few characters who matter, not a ton of dialogue, and a ghost who is most definitely still kicking, and very angry. And, most of it takes place in an isolated old mansion, only reachable during certain times of the day, due to a tide that swallows the road.
It takes place in the early 1900s, a time in which superstition was often more important to people than logic. Daniel Radcliffe, trying valiantly but failing miserably to shake his Harry Potter image, plays the lead, Arthur Kipps, a lawyer tasked with going through the spooky old house to sort through all of the paperwork before the law firm can sell it. The house is haunted, he sees ghosts, children die in town, and it’s all moderately spooky, at least for a little while, while you’re still trying to get your bearings.
There are a few scenes where Arthur searches around the house, in the dark, with loud noises and scary images happening at every instance. There aren’t a lot of jump scares, which is usually a good thing, and seeing the titular Woman in Black appear in the background for a second and then disappearing the next is definitely creepy. I’m unsure whether or not it’s really terrifying, and I certainly never found myself freaking out, but tolerance levels will vary and it’s effective at being unnerving, if nothing else.
However, you can’t exactly base an entire movie around that. So, as one might expect, the reason the ghost is still on the planet at all has to be figured out and then hopefully solved. The Woman in Black takes a turn for the worse here, as it gets dull and not very scary at all. It doesn’t even really try to be, as less and less of the film takes place outside the haunted house. Learning more about the ghost makes her less frightening, which is especially true once we learn that the only people she affects — at least, on a damaging level — are children.
Of course, that means that Arthur’s son, Joseph (Misha Handley), has to get involved at some point, as that’s the only way that some urgency will come to Arthur. He cares little for the kids of the townspeople, especially after they were so terribly rude to him earlier on in the film. And they don’t tell him why, either, despite the fact that doing so might have prevented him from seeing The Woman in Black in the first place. No, they just stare at him wickedly and tell him to leave. That’s about as ineffective a tactic as you’d guess.
The film is based on a novel written by Susan Hill, and was directed by James Watkins, the man behind the 2008 horror film Eden Lake. Watkins’ earlier film was also quite minimalistic, but was emotionally haunting thanks in large part to its main actors. Here, he has to rely on the emotionless face of Daniel Radcliffe. It the Boy Who Lived wants a career beyond the Potter franchise, he’s going to seriously have to expand his range.
He does not appear scared even once during the film. The most amount of emotion he shows is mild curiosity at what’s going on around him. He stares, empty, at whatever happens, save for a short smile right at the end — perhaps because he realized that he was done working on the film and that he could collect his paycheck and leave. Radcliffe is just so uninteresting in the role that he undermines much of the attempted horror. It never feels like there’s much danger because he doesn’t react to anything spooky.
The Woman in Black plays for just over 90 minutes, but it feels way longer than it is. We go through the same sort of sequence over and over again, and it just gets dull. Many scenes feel extended just to make the film feature length. It’s like there wasn’t enough material to make an actual movie that could be released in theaters for money, so they just doubled the material without making any changes to it, and hoped we wouldn’t notice.
However, I will say that it’s kind of nice for a simple film like this one to come along, devoid of excessive gore or plot twists. It’s straightforward, it doesn’t try to do too much, and it was made on the cheap. Sure, it might not have turned out to be great, but it allows for us to re-live a period in time when this film was more common, taking us back to an easier film watching experience. There’s only one gross-out scene here, while many horror films nowadays are trying to make you puke at every turn.
The Woman in Black opens strong, with a lot of creepy imagery and sounds, but it eventually dies down due to repetition and the direction the story has to take. I can appreciate the intent in a film like this one, but it’s the execution that I had a problem with. It has its effective moments, but it feels far too long in the second half to really be worth your time. And, please, someone take Daniel Radcliffe to an acting coach. If your house was haunted, you wouldn’t feel mild amusement to that revelation.