Thursday, February 9, 2012

More Than a Woman: THE WOMAN IN BLACK

There’s a big, scary haunted house in the middle of The Woman in Black, a charmingly old-fashioned horror film. It’s a towering Gothic building with endless candlelit rooms stuffed with seemingly endless bric-a-bracs and musty furniture. The grounds, including its very own cemetery, are overgrown with twisting weeds and long grass. Of course, this is a place the local villagers will not go. It’s quite a ways out of town and when the tide comes in it becomes a small island. It’s dark, creepy, and isolated.

It’s the dawn of the 20th century when the old widow who lives in the house dies with no living relatives. A young, freshly widowered lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe, nicely filling the requirements of his first post-Potter role) is sent away from his toddler son and their big city home to sort out this countryside estate. When he shows up, the greeting is hardly what you’d call hospitable. The village is filled with the kind of small-town horror-movie people who seem nice enough but speak slowly, as if they’re afraid they’ll spill their town’s dark secrets if they didn’t watch their words close enough.

They have reason to look so glum. There be ghosts here. It all has to do with that big creepy mansion on the far outskirts of town, the kind of half-regal, half-decrepit old building at which Very Bad Things have happened. These Bad Things must have something to do with the worrisomely high mortality rate in town. The villagers calmly and forcefully tell Radcliffe not to go to that house, to just turn around and go back home. Even the kindly older gentleman (Ciaran Hinds) and his wife (Janet McTeer) who ask him over for supper can’t help but let their apprehension show through their kindness. But it’s the young man’s job to close the account, so head out into the isolated manor he must.

The satisfying, mostly wordless, centerpiece of the film finds Radcliffe sorting through papers, old letters, and scratched photographs at the house, intermittently interrupted by ominous creaks and mysterious footsteps. Other times a woman in black, the ghost of the title, appears. He sees her through a window, standing in the cemetery. He goes out to investigate and she’s gone. He turns back and sees her standing at an upstairs window. He goes back inside, climbs the winding stairs and finds the room empty. It’s creepy, for sure, but director James Watkins has such a sure hand in staging Jane Goldman’s screenplay (based on a novel by Susan Hill) that he taps into a mournful mood that slowly builds startling moments and an unsettling sense of wrongness into a kind of heavy atmosphere that settles under the skin.

When Hinds offers to return for Radcliffe after the tide recedes later that evening, and the younger man says that he prefers “to work through the night,” it gave me a sinking feeling. It’s a ghastly ghost story trope that worked on me here. It’s not always so enjoyable to wonder why a character won’t just leave the haunted house. Here the emphasis on the decaying architecture of the big old house, the accumulating terror from the likes of cracked porcelain dolls and various eerie wind-up figures, is effective. Much praise is due production designer Kave Quinn, art decorator Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Niamh Coulter, without whom this candlelit building would seem considerably less haunted.

The film comes from a fairly recently reconstituted Hammer Films, the British studio that made a name for itself churning out horror films of just this sort – by and large patient, suspenseful, and with a whiff of the literary about them – during its greatest prominence from the 1950s through the 1970s. The Woman in Black fits quite well in this tradition. It’s so effectively old-fashioned, in fact, I thought I had it all figured out. It’s a terrific piece of craftsmanship. It was creeping me out, but I had an understanding of its approach and its technique that I thought was keeping me from being truly scared by the film. At one point, when the ghost suddenly appears in a classic jump scare, I heard a loud gasp from somewhere near me in the audience. It took me a second to realize that the gasp had come from me.

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