Directed by: James Watkins
Premise: Set in 19th Century England, a lawyer travels to a village to close the estate at a haunted house.
What Works: The Woman in Black is an effective supernatural horror story. This film mixes the past and the present in a way that fans with knowledge of the horror genre will appreciate but it is also accessible to a mainstream audience. The Woman in Black is a Hammer production, the British studio that brought the world The Horror Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein and many other horror films from the 1960s and 70s starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt. The Woman in Black reinvents Hammer horror for the 21st Century, recalling its own films with the Victorian era setting and gothic sensibilities but this film is also a product of contemporary filmmaking with visuals inspired by recent hits like Ringu, Insidious, and Paranormal Activity. The result is a successful combination of new and old. Something the filmmakers of The Woman in Black do exceptionally well is to demonstrate patience. The film is in no rush to get scared; fear occurs most effectively through a gradual build up and The Woman in Black does that well. A lot of recent horror films have been scary only in a handful of moments, pouncing on the audience with a gory visual or a loud sound effect but then sliding into a period of waiting. The Woman in Black has an atmosphere of dread to it and that makes it scary even in the scenes in which ghosts are not going bump in the night. This is created by very effective use of lighting; there are a few outstanding shots of long, dark hallways or figures moving in the background just out of focus. The film also uses sounds and especially silence very well, letting the subtle noises of creaking floorboards or the rattle of a door handle echo on the soundtrack, which forces the audience to pay attention and maintains the tension.
What Doesn’t: Although The Woman in Black is an effective horror story, it does run a little long. A great deal of the film involves Daniel Radcliffe’s character poking around dark hallways and although this is done well, the filmmakers lean on this a little too much. The most effective haunted house stories, such as Poltergeist or Hellraiser, usually crisscross the scares with the characters researching the origins of the curse and looking for a solution. In these stories, as understanding of the supernatural increases so does the threat posed by the haunting, leading to a climax in which the knowledge gained becomes the tool used to resolve the conflict. The investigation of The Woman in Black is only done perfunctorily; the research does not reveal anything that the audience didn’t already know from the stories of the townspeople. The ending is also a little problematic. Although it is consistent with the way horror films have been told since Brian De Palma’s Carrie, twist endings ought to do more than just provide one last scare and serve a narrative or thematic purpose. But the resolution of The Lady in Black refutes the accomplishment and heroism of the protaganist.
Bottom Line: The Woman in Black is a very good exercise in haunted house scares. The film comes as a relief from the trend of found footage pseudo documentaries but it is also a well-made supernatural thriller in its right.
Episode: #375 (February 12, 2012)