Several years ago, when I saw the stage version of Susan Hill’s novel “The Woman in Black,” it pleasantly surprised me, as a truly frightening experience that stuck with me. Sadly I can’t say the same about its big screen adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. This James Watkins film is the hardest I’ve laughed at a horror movie in a long time.
“The Woman in Black” marks the fifth picture since 2008, made by the revived British company Hammer Films. Stylistically it's a return to the gothic horror that cemented actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as staples of the genre for Hammer in the 1950s. But in quality, it more closely resembles the bombs that caused the brand to languish in the 1980s.
Our tale starts with a scene that’s supposed to shock the viewer. Three young girls senselessly commit simultaneous suicide. Then in the background we hear a mother scream, “MY BABIES!”
To call the film’s opening ridiculously melodramatic would be an understatement. The over-the-top music combined with unnecessary slow motion had the opposite of its intended effect; I was cracking up. With this brief moment, “The Woman in Black” sets a precedent that will continue throughout the movie: situations that are so ludicrous, you can’t help chuckling.
After the credits, the story shifts to London, where we meet Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young widower and father. It’s fairly difficult to believe Radcliffe as a father given his boyish features. Even with scruffy facial hair, sideburns, and some creative camera angles by Watkins to make Radcliffe larger in stature, I still wasn’t buying it. A protagonist, who doesn’t look his age however, is the least of the crimes this picture commits to your suspension of disbelief.
As an attorney, Kipps is tasked with overseeing the estate of a recently deceased widow in the countryside. He is reluctant to accept the assignment, but he goes because he needs the money. When Kipps arrives in the remote village, he meets with strange opposition at every turn from the locals. They all warn him not to go near the widow’s home. Although Kipp can’t disappoint his employer, so he presses on. That’s when the weird stuff starts, that’s supposed to be scary.
Watkins starts out like you might expect, with a slow burn style of horror. The widow’s house is located in a remote marshland, playing up the isolation factor. Adding to the creepiness, he uses glimpses of the titular Woman in Black in corners and mirrors, as well as sudden noises to make you uneasy. There’s even two or three decent scares which will make you jump, however the film begins to feel just plain slow halfway through.
Kipps puts up with The Woman in Black for a while, but after she kills several people around him, he decides to go on the offensive. In these last 15 to 20 minutes, things become really silly. He fishes out a corpse from the mud supposedly lost for years, in 5 minutes flat, hoping to appease her. Then she comes after him in an obvious and anticlimactic confrontation. Normally I try to remain reserved, but I couldn’t help cracking jokes and laughing with the rest of the audience during these scenes.
“The Woman in Black” represents a disappointing step backward after Hammer’s moderately successful 2010 remake “Let Me In.” Daniel Radcliffe gives a fine performance, although if you truly love him from “Harry Potter,” don’t see this movie. It will only disappoint you.