Ghost stories, perhaps the most quintessential part of horror lore, seem to have recently been fading into the background of horror filmmaking like a just glimpsed apparition. Aside from the recent run of Paranormal Activity films and the Japanese penchant for a good ghost story, there hasn’t been much of note, with the horror genre preoccupied by remakes of old slasher properties and attempts to shock audiences in nastier ways. So it’s pleasing to see The Woman In Black arrive on the big screen and offer another ghostly experience, although it’s telling that it’s based on an early 80’s book and the subsequent legendary London stage adaptation that started it’s lengthy run at the end of that decade.
Set in Edwardian times, the story follows young solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a widower with a four year old son, who is sent to a small remote village in north east England to manage and close the estate of a recently deceased client. It’s a three or four day job with a mountain of paperwork to go through, but he finds the local villagers less than hospitable; they want him to return to London immediately and very strongly discourage him from visiting the estate itself. Fortunately for Kipps he manages to make one friend, in the shape of wealthy local resident Sam (Ciarán Hinds), and of course he quickly manages to make his way to the imposing Eel Marsh House where strange things start to happen.
If you want to create an effective ghost story then the setting is obviously key and the design of Eel Marsh House is spot on. It’s an impressively dark, eerie looking building, isolated on its own little island in the middle of marshland, where at various times of the day the solitary track leading to it is submerged by an incoming tide. Truly there is no escaping this dark hulking terror if the tides aren’t in your favour. The wild overgrown grounds with the small cemetery and the damaged wrought iron gates at the entrance all add to the effect. Inside are the relics of a wealthy family that is no more, with a certain grand opulence hidden in the darkness and beneath dust sheets, presented with an oft seen clichéd creepiness. It’s all very well put together so it feels a little disappointing when the film frequently moves away from the house to scenes in the village or on Sam’s estate.
In fact I think it’s this movement between different locations that kills off some of the creepiness throughout the film. Yes there are more strange goings-on away from the house and the hostility of the villagers is quite interesting, but these scenes don’t offer as much potential for mounting terror as those at Eel Marsh House and it just don't get the opportunity to build effectively. As a result most of the ‘horror’ comes from cheap thrills and jumps of the loud noise / something quickly moving variety. It really is only late on in the film when back at this location for a good period of time that The Woman In Black can sustain and build on this mood, leading to a few effective scenes. In particular there is fantastic use of some old wind-up animal toys - they almost look real and and are shot with the candlelight reflecting in their obsidian like eyes, suggesting a life observing all manner of tenebrous secrets. The design of the woman in black herself is fairly perfunctory. A black dress with a veil in a dark sinister environment – it does the job, although she’s not exactly the scariest ghost in film history.
Radcliffe is well cast as Kipps, successfully breaking off the shackles of the role that will probably forever overshadow his career. He is believable and even with the burden of grief he carries, likeable too. Despite seeing things that appear to be unreal, he stays level headed and is determined to solve the mystery, so we are rooting for him. I was also pleased to see Hinds given a role with a bit more to do, as in most of the many films he’s recently cropped up in he only ever seems to play a minimal part. The cinematography is excellent throughout, with some beautiful looking visuals making the most of the many dark spaces and the foggy desolation of the area surrounding the house. It’s clear a lot of effort went into making the film look good, successfully so.
Overall The Woman In Black is a quite entertaining and well put together ghost story. Although I personally didn’t find it particularly creepy, that's probably due to my feeling like a jaded horror fan most of the time, with it usually taking more than what was on offer here to get a reaction from me. There may be too much effort put into trying to make the audience jump rather than sustain terror, but there’s something quite classic about The Woman In Black's nature that I liked, which I think has been missing from the genre these days.