Sixty years on from their heyday, Hammer are fondly remembered as the hallmark of quality British horror, yet their output largely consisted of costumed potboilers constrained by the prevailing morality of the time, and much of their output is badly dated, particularly their limping creations of the seventies. Relaunched in 2007, they have ventured into new territory with the American set remake Let Me In, but with their highest profile release to date they have returned to the traditional period ghost story and confirmed their ability as slick purveyors of quality for a modern audience.
Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black comes with a strong track record already behind it. There has been a long running stage adaptation in London’s West End, and a 1989 television adaptation was written by Nigel Kneale, best known for Quatermass and The Stone Tape. The screenplay for this new version is by Jane Goldman, no stranger to screen success or the paranormal, having adapted Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr’s Kick-Ass, as well as two X-Files Books of the Unexplained.
Solicitor Arthur Kipps is dispatched to remote Eel Marsh House in the chill damp of North East England to handle the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Warned by the unwelcoming villagers that he will not find a buyer locally, nor should he spend any more time in the abandoned building than necessary, he ignores their superstitious warnings and focuses on his task. The house and the family are marked by tragedy, drownings and suicides, and when Kipps sees a mysterious woman in the grounds of the house, shrouded in black, and a local child subsequently dies in a tragic incident, his presence at the house is blamed.
From the opening scene of a trio of perfectly made up and expressionless girls playing with dolls and tea sets as they are lured to their fate, there is much to commend in the moody locations and subdued lighting of the crumbling rooms, but ultimately the film is less than the sum of its undoubtedly fine parts. As Kipps, Daniel Radcliffe is the focus, but also the weakness; given the lead in the Harry Potter films for his resemblance to the character, there he was surrounded by a strong ensemble who offered support, enhancing his performance as the years went on, but here he spends much of his time isolated in the decaying Eel Marsh House.
Cast here for his following rather than ability, it is apparent Radcliffe lacks the range or talent to convince as either a grieving widower or a leading man. Although Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer perform ably as Sam and Elizabeth Daily, the couple who host Kipps, their screen time is sparse, and often the film relies too heavily on the atmosphere created by high production values rather than narrative to stay afloat. McTeer is the high point in the film, veering from light comedy to sudden horror when she enters into unwanted communion with the spirits, desperately scratching at tables in a manner akin to the séance of The Changeling, yet she only appears in a handful of scenes.
With no unexpected twists or original scares, director James Watkins is forced to interrupt Radcliffe’s melancholia with amateur scares, masked faces leaping out of the dark or sudden bursts on the soundtrack in order to engage the short attention span of the youth audience who will follow his star, and while he may have crafted a superb horror film for those who have never seen one before, those of a more sophisticated taste will find more in the less well publicised but ultimately superior The Awakening.
The Woman in Black is currently on general release