The Woman in Black is a ghost story in the grand tradition of writers like M.R. James. But while it might seem like its origins are steeped in the Gothic style of the 1800s, it is, in fact, based upon a far more modern novel of the same name written by Susan Hill in 1983. Daniel Radcliffe stars in this Hammer Films produced tale as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer sent to a tiny coastal village to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned the Eel Marsh House.
Kipps’ arrival in the small village is met with the same sort of unease on the part of the villagers that met Renfield in 1931’s Dracula. Kipps is warned not to go to the manor by just about everyone he encounters except for wealthy landowner Sam Daily (Hinds) who dismisses the villager’s paranoia as silly superstition. Kipps arrives at the manor to discover that at high tide, it is completely cut off from the mainland with only the surrounding marshes and sea frets for company. As Kipps begins digging into the voluminous amount of paperwork, he begins to experience several strange phenomena including the sounds of footsteps, and various apparitions including that of a woman garbed in a black dress and veil.
Back in the village, a young girl commits suicide after drinking lye, and Arthur learns that the village has been plagued by the numerous suicides of several children, all of which came after a sighting of the woman in black. The tragedy even struck Arthur’s friend Sam and his wife (McTeer) who lost his own son many years earlier. With his own young son on his way to the village with his nanny, Arthur has to try to find a way to put the spirit of the Woman in Black to rest.
The Woman in Black is directed by James Watkins who helmed the vastly underrated 2008 horror film, “Eden Lake”. Watkins has now proven in two films that he has a deft hand when it comes to building suspense. There are a multitude of jump out of your seat moments but Watkins builds them gradually going from merely being creepy to downright harrowing. Watkins skill is in knowing what button to push at just the right time. Despite the fact that our house is almost stereotypical in its cobweb infested creekiness, the film never becomes clichéd. The house becomes as an important cast member as any of the live actors. The film generally follows the book with the exception of the ending. The ending in the book was more terrifying and thus far more powerful then we get here and it’s a shame Watkins chose to change the ending so drastically.
Radcliffe has never been an overly expressive actor and throughout much of the film he carries that same sort of perplexed half-grin that he had in the Harry Potter series. Yet Radcliffe allows the action and suspense to play off him but never becomes overshadowed. Hinds and McTeer provide steady, veteran backup for Radcliffe.
It this era where horror is often judged by the body count and volume of gore, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a PG-13 rated film that can still scare you when the lights are turned off.
Audio commentary with Director James Watkins
Inspire the Perfect Thriller: Making the Woman in Black (9:31) – Interviews with Radcliffe and other cast members as well as director Watkins. Also a look at how this real life manor house was made to look derelict and overgrown.
No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps (4:04) – Radcliffe discusses his role and that of the actor who played his young son who is his real life Godson.