The Woman In Black Review
After a hit-and-miss return to features – the well-made but ultimately pointless Let Me In, the execrable The Resident and the criminally unseen Wake Wood – Hammer have decided to make their first-ever feature ghost story and turned to Susan Hill’s iconic chiller The Woman In Black to do so. It could have gone so wrong; a modernisation of what is so brilliantly an old-fashioned ghost story. Fortunately, James Watkins, along with Jane Goldman on scripting duties, have managed to craft a fantastic adaptation that’s more than worthy of its source material. Despite a few plot tweaks – Arthur Kipps is now a widower already with a three-year-old son and, potentially contentiously, the final third has a new direction with a different ending – Watkins and Goldman have been careful to remain faithful to the feel of the play and the aspect that makes it most effective: that being alone in a old house with bumps in the night and that rocking chair, is inherently scary.
And scary it is. The Woman In Black has led avid readers and theatre goers on a rollercoaster of fear for years and this big screen adaptation is set to do the same for a new generation, tempted perhaps by the presence of Daniel Radcliffe who’s impressive in a role that requires him to command the screen solo for a big chunk of the running time. Arthur’s journey in discovering just what happened at Eel Marsh house is told in sustained sequences that are unrelenting in their quest to first freak you out with odd bumps and snatched glances of the titular ghost, then scare you outright with well-timed jumps before resetting the counter and starting all over again without a moment’s rest or a laugh to alleviate the tension. The second act, as Arthur decides to stay overnight to finish his business at Eel Marsh, is nailbitingly tense from the get-go, to the extent that the more susceptible among you will forget to breathe.
It’s all achieved in delightfully minimalist ways, a world away from the loud noises that frequent standard horror output. Marco Beltrami’s score ratchets up when required, but often it’s left to the echoes of ambient noise that both increase the nightmarish situation of being alone in a massive house at night and enhance the uses of otherwise normal sounds, resulting the film’s creepiest sequence not even featuring The Woman, rather a room full of wind-up toys. The film is punctuated throughout with thoroughly unsettling imagery – three girls strolling nonchalantly to a window they intend to throw themselves out of, a brutal hanging, a little girl setting herself on fire – and that’s even on top of the fact that vacantly staring little children is always freaky, let alone dead ones. Most importantly though, we rarely see The Woman for more than a few seconds throughout – until the climax with a scene-setter of a quickly dimming corridor that we know is never going to end well – and so her appearances remain effectively chilling.
Even with the third act plot addition that hints at a happier conclusion, purists will be pleased to note that it ends on similar lines to both the novel and play and, thankfully, mooted flashback scenes of The Woman’s past haven’t transpired so she remains as enigmatic a figure as ever, with us as the audience discovering through Arthur’s eyes what transpired in the past. It all adds up to a completely successful adaptation of a much-loved classic that adds enough to the source material – the fact that Arthur already has a child, in particular, adds a different dynamic – to warrant its making and, what with this and The Awakening last year, shows that British horror is in rude health. Long may it continue.
NB - The version we saw was prior to the BBFC cutting out six seconds of footage to gain a 12A. We don't know for sure what would have been cut - the aforementioned image of a girl on fire is a potential cut - but we don't believe it'll make that much difference to the overall film.