The Woman In Black (2012,UK)
Director: James Watkins Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer
I have a deep and abiding affection for the films of the legendary Hammer Studios. How much of this stems from a nostalgia for childhood viewings when they were broadcast on TV and how much is due to the films themselves is difficult to precisely define but I can unquestionably state that, certainly when the studio was at its peak, Hammer have produced some of the most satisfying examples of the horror genre that I’ve had the pleasure to see. My love for Hammer movies is so abiding that I recently made a seven hour round trip to clap my eyes on the recently remastered The Plague Of The Zombies at the Glasgow Film Festival (and worth the time and expense it was too). The original Hammer studios died a death in the eighties and remained interred until recently, when it was raised from the dead to produce horror movies once more. The first film from the new Hammer that I saw was the actually pretty good Wake Wood, a film which promised a return to the old school values of the studio in its new incarnation.
Hammer’s latest release, The Woman In Black can safely be considered less of a remake of the superb, Nigel Kneale penned 1989 television version and more of a new adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel. Solicitor Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is sent by his employers to the small coastal town of Crythin Gifford to finalise the affairs of one of the firm’s clients, Mrs Drablow, a task that involves trawling through mountains of old papers in her ominous stately home Eel Marsh House. The locals don’t want him there and certainly don’t want him rooting through the old house and he quickly discovers why when he is subjected to the frenzied hauntings of the titular spirit and the bad things start to befall the children of the village.
Unusually for a twenty first century horror film The Woman In Black is an attempt at building creeping dread rather than shocking with gore and torture, something that has to be admired. The only problem is, I don’t think that they have entirely succeeded. Granted, I saw the movie in the wake of both the 1989 version (which nails creeping dread and inexplicable malice, straight between the eyes) and The Shining (Kubrick’s masterclass in paranoid horror) and so its impact was probably substantially lessened than it could have been but I think there are some fundamental problems with its approach that clip its claws when it comes to the horror factor.
The root of this may lie with the adaptation. Penned by Kick Ass writer Jane Goldman (also responsible for the lacklustre The Debt and the actually pretty good Stardust) it lacks the grace and subtlety of Kneale’s take. It’s difficult to accuratel compare the two because I’ve never read the book, however I can say that I prefer Kneale’s far less melodramatic version. Personally, I didn’t feel there was a need for Mrs. Daily’s(McTeer) histrionics in the 2012 version which although provide some tragically comic relief amount to over egging the pudding when compared to the more dignified psychosis exhibited in the ’89 rendition. There are some fundamental plot changes which don’t really work, although I suppose with no foreknowledge of prior versions of the story these would slip by unnoticed and not feel so clumsy and obtrusive.
I deliberately risked the horrors of the local multiplex so that I could see this film with an audience. I will confess to being almost completely desensitised to the usual devices of horror films. My natural scepticism, ingrained cynicism and love of horror cinema mean I have an instinct for the setup/shock structure that is common practice in mainstream horror cinema. I needed to see this with an audience of less hardened spirits in order to judge how scary it actually is. In the ’89 version, the atmosphere is established gradually through an irrepressible sense of menace. The woman in black just appears when and where she likes, there’s no tantalising glimpses or sudden revelations and her matter of fact existence is actually more primally scary than cliched “suddenly appearing in a mirror” scares. The new film seems to favour the latter approach and executes “jump scares” with a ruthless, if a little bit textbook, efficiency. Using the conventional methods of misdirection and audio cues to build some tension before relieving it with a shocking reveal it certainly seemed to have the majority of the audience squealing with shock. The man sitting next to me was finding it so hard to take he had covered his eyes and was listening to his ipod to block out the sound (true story). My problem with this is that if you are used to the mechanisms involved you see each scare coming a mile away, leaving little to surprise and truly shock you.
The constant ebb and flow of these ghost train tactics softens the blow as the film plays out as you get into the rhythm of the scary moments which is a shame as there are some really atmospheric and genuinely creepy moments to be had, all of which lose impact next to the loud, brash, “surprising” shock moments. It’s a little bit disappointing when you consider that director James Watkins previous film, the unsettling Eden Lake, is a film that is positively steeped in menace. Clearly I’m in the minority in this opinion as the rest of the audience were literally howling with terror by the last act. I can’t stress enough that decades of watching horror films of all kinds has immunised me from these tactics and that I have an inherent preference for a more subtle and psychologically complex approach to horror. I found myself enjoying the audiences reaction to the scares more than the scares themselves.
The other big obstacle for me was the presence of Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role of Arthur Kipps. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was unconvincingly young for the part. At the tender age of 23 (and he looks it) he seems a little bit young for the character of Kipps and while his, like the rest of the performances in the film, is a passable one I couldn’t help but get the creeping feeling that he was cast mainly for box office pulling power rather than for what he could bring to the role, an assertion the predominantly teenage girl audience would seem to support. I can’t blame Hammer for making such sensible commercial decisions and I know that half the problem stems from the script, but he doesn’t really express the slow mental collapse suffered by Adrian Rawlins solicitor in the ’89 version which for me is a major source of the tension that drives the story.
There seems to be a tendency in contemporary horror to equate an increase in horror with a need to make things more spectacular. The adage “less is more” has never been more appropriate in this respect as for me, the bigger, louder, more overtly ghastly approach to modern horror films just adds an extra layer of seperation between the viewer and the story. There seems to me to be an insecurity amongst the majority of (at least in terms of the “mainstream”) horror filmmakers that leads them to believe to be truly scary you have to employ overtly creepy set design, grizzly cgi corpse like spirits and constant streams of ghost train shocks. Sometimes the conventional can seem more terrifying than any amount of hideous victorian era clockwork toys or an eardrum shattering audio cue. In fact, to be truly unsettling I think a horror film needs to play to this, to make the mundane and normal threatening and creepy to make that journey home and the walk to the bedroom in the dark an unnerving experience, harbouring the shadows of the film experience. Don’t get me wrong, New Hammer’s The Woman In Black is a lot of fun as far as horror films go and a refreshing departure from the torture porn tactics of their contemporaries (Lionsgate, I’m looking at you) but in terms of being genuinely scary it doesn’t really cut it, at least not for this leathery horror veteran. It is definitely promising though, a million miles better than the usual mainstream garbage passed off as horror films and there’s no doubt that it provides a great basis from which Hammer can rebuild their legendary reputation.