James Watkins’ horror flick could have been made back in the 1950s, but it is one that Radcliffe's 'Potter' fans will enjoy.
No Country for Young Kids would be just as suitable a title for The Woman in Black, a hoot of an old-fashioned British horror film in which being under 10 years old is not a good thing. This first production to bear the venerable Hammer imprint since 1979 so enjoyably revives the old dark house trappings of deep shadows, creepy noises, haunted attics, unwelcoming villagers, now-you-see-them-now-you-don't apparitions and shrieking music cues pegged to startling cuts that it makes them seem new again, or at least so they'll seem to the gaggle of young Daniel Radcliffe fans who have rarely, if ever, experienced them before. Curiosity about the actor's first adult screen role and first part since leaving Hogwarts behind should ensure healthy returns for the CBS Films release. And the good news is that the former Harry Potter carries the film quite capably.
Based on Susan Hill's 1982 novel, the film version has been some time in coming, in light of the fact that the London stage adaptation, which employs only two actors, has been running continuously since 1989, making it the second-longest-running play in the history of the West End, after The Mousetrap.
The first children to go are three sisters who, in the prologue, abruptly cease playing teatime with their dolls and, as if possessed, walk right out their upper-floor windows to their doom. When we then see widower Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) bidding farewell to his young son Joseph (Misha Handley) before leaving on a business trip, it's hard not to feel uneasy about the boy's life expectancy.
So stricken remains young Mr. Kipps over the death in childbirth of his wife that he hasn't performed well at his law office, and his new assignment represents his last chance to save his position: He is to resolve all the remaining affairs of a widow who has recently died at a remote country estate, including trying to sell the old pile.
Easier said than done, once he gets a look at it. Located at the end of a long causeway off the mainland, Eel Marsh House can be reached only at particular times of day, as the tides wash over the road at certain hours. Initially, he's meant to stay at the little inn at the village of Crythin Gifford, where the residents have all the charm of the rural fellows in Straw Dogs.But even a haunted house seems preferable to the inn's attic, the very room from which the girls had tumbled in the prologue.
Only one local seems nice, Daily (Ciaran Hinds, who appeared opposite Radcliffe in the final Potter installment), a landed gent whose deranged wife (Janet McTeer) dines with dogs at the table since the accidental death (is there any other kind?) of their son some years back.
Common sense might dictate that Kipps board with the Dailys from now on. But, no, he's got to be where the action is, at the mansion, a place with lots of doors that needs to be dimly lit by candles to look right. Once ensconced, Kipps reads old correspondence revealing the unfortunate fate of the child of the lady of the house, although his absorption in past horrors is interrupted by contemporary ones in the village, where it's a wonder any inhabitants remain at all, given the youth mortality rate.
Working from Jane Goldman's compact, well-judged adaptation, director James Watkins (Eden Lake) shows he well knows what he's doing: The genre has certain requirements and he honors them, with sincerity and style. The hooded spectral title character keeps appearing — in windows, at a distance, present in a room and then not, always elusive — and the director is not ashamed to go all the way in having Kipps poke his nose in rooms and dark places where most rational people, or any who had seen haunted house movies, would not tread.
Happily, Watkins steers clear of indulging in modern horror tropes, especially where gore and vulgarity are concerned. In most respects other than technical expertise, this is a film that essentially could have been made in Hammer's heyday back in the 1950s, as well as one that Radcliffe's Potter fans can enjoy.
The actor, it must be said, is perfectly good, credible as a young father and capable of holding the screen by himself for a long period, as required by his character's isolation. The only issue one might raise is his persistent facial stubble, something quite out of step with the early 20th century period.
Hinds and McTeer add weighty support as the area's most eminent residents. The locations, particularly the marshland area of the house, and production design are memorable, with both evoked attentively by Tim Maurice-Jones' cinematography. Marco Beltrami's score effectively augments the tension and atmosphere.
And the ending is wonderful — perfect, in fact.
Not since young Hutter arrived at Orlok's castle in "Nosferatu" has a journey to a dreaded house been more fearsome than the one in "The Woman in Black." Both films (and all versions of "Dracula") begin with the local townspeople terrified of a residence and the legends surrounding it. In this case, a green, Victorian-era attorney named Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is visiting a haunted house in the north of England, which can be reached only by a single-track road on a long, narrow causeway that lies so low in a brackish sea that the waters lap its edges.
Arthur's mission is to search the decrepit gothic mansion for the papers of its late occupant. This woman is said to haunt the house in mourning for her dead child. Local legend has it that the ghost is responsible for the deaths of other local children, brought about in rage as her form of vengeance. No wonder, then, that the locals shun Arthur, refuse him room and board, and strongly suggest he take the next train back to town.
But Arthur must succeed because his job depends on it. His work at a firm of solicitors has been unsatisfactory, and he needs to support his son, Joseph (Misha Handley), because his wife died four years ago in childbirth. As in the Dracula legend, the carriage driver refuses to take him close to the mansion, but a stalwart resident named Daily (Ciaran Hinds, he of the portentous face) drives him there in his new motorcar.
The house is a masterpiece of production design, crumbling, forlorn, filled with the faded and jumbled Victorian possessions of doomed lifetimes. It has a unique feature that audiences will not fail to remark upon: its own sound-effects crew. At every frightening moment, and there are many, the soundtrack paralyzes us with blasts of cacophonous noise. You wouldn't want to be in the theater next to this movie in a multiplex.
"The Woman in Black" is Daniel Radcliffe's first film since "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" (2011). With a few other diversions, the "Potter" series kept him working steadily for a decade, during which he has grown taller and sprouted a crop of sideburns, but at 22, he still looks like a schoolboy — or a little young, anyway, to be the father of a 4-year-old. Nor does he have much gravitas. The film might have had more effect if his character had possessed more screen presence, but "The Woman in Black" depends mostly on the decor, location and supporting cast, some of them playing living people and some not.
The movie nevertheless is effective, because director James Watkins knows it isn't a character study. His haunted house is the star. The illnesses of local children provide ominous portents. Daily's wife (Janet McTeer) balances precariously on the edge of madness. And there is a most satisfactory scene at a railroad station that might have had Daniel Radcliffe wondering if he will ever, in his career, take a routine rail journey.