Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Woman in Black

I remember going camping with my uncle when I was a kid. Late at night inside the tent after we put out the campfire and the lanterns, as my brother, father and I were settling in for sleep, my uncle would ask us the question that we had all had been waiting for. Do you want to hear a scary story? Of course we did. My uncle would tell us the best stories ever. It has been a long time since I have seen a good, down to earth haunted house/ghost story and "The Woman In Black" delivers. Daniel Radcliffe of "Harry Potter" fame and Ciarán Hinds ("The Debt," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 "), star in this Gothic tale of a haunted mansion in an old seaside village with secret.

In the prologue of this tale we are shown a group of three young girls, probably 6 or 7 years-old having a tea party with their dolls as some suspenseful, driving music plays in the background. In unison the girls look off to the camera, but more to what is behind us, to something in the room with them. Also in unison, the girls stand up and as if hypnotized, walk over to the three glass attic windows, open them and walk out to a three story drop to the road below.
Based on a novel by English author Susan Hill, "The Woman In Black" starts out in similar fashion as Jonathan Harker did in "Dracula," as young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to a lonely village to settle the estate of the Eel Marsh House. Before embarking on this latest mission for his law firm, we see a little of Arthur's life, and find that he is already a tragic figure. A widower with a small boy, Joseph (Misha Handley), we catch glimpses of Arthur's sadness and pain. We also see that his job as a solicitor is in jeopardy and this mission is imperative to him and his child's financial welfare. Informing his son and his son's nanny that they will join him at the end of the week and spend the weekend together in the town of Crythin Gifford, where the Marsh mansion is. Upon arriving at the town, he finds the towns people, scared, closed-mouth, and generally rude. Arthur does find one ally in Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a rich local who believes in progressive thought and that the town's people are just a bunch of superstitious bumpkins. Upon going to the Marsh estate Kipps starts to uncover the family secrets.

After spending time in the creepy haunted house that is Hogwarts, Radcliffe plays the part of Arthur well. In typical Hammer Films fashion, the mansion in this film is filled with plenty of creaks, squeaks, and things that go bump in the night. Unlike films of late that tend to go for the gross out, with tons of blood or horrific torture scenes, "The Woman In Black" instead relies on low deep music, strange whispered voices, children laughing the sound of children screaming, and Radcliffe's acting prowess to build the suspense and sense of foreboding doom. There are no cheap thrills. Like the ghost stories from when I was a kid, the tale is not only haunting, but, interesting enough to draw you in to want to find out why is this woman in her eternal mourning attire is haunting this village. Instead of coming out and telling Arthur and us, the audience, writer/director James Watkins ("Eden Lake") takes us along as Kipps sorts through the tons of papers left by owners of the house, Alice Drablow and her estranged sister, Jennet Humfrye. As it turns out, Alice forced her sister to give up her bastard child Nathaniel to her to raise as her own. The child dies in a carriage accident, and before hanging herself, Jennet swears vengeance from beyond the grave. Jennet takes revenge, as Daily's wife says during a spiritualistic trance (which seems to come upon her whenever her own deceased child's name is mentioned), that the woman in black tells the children to do things. As we piece the clues together, the legal papers that Alice filed against her sister Jennet about being mentally unstable, taking Jennet's child away, allowing the child to drown with the carriage, the towns peoples rude and somewhat violence against strangers lead us and the audience to understand the curse on the town and the surrounding area. As Sam sums up the curse for us; that if anyone sees the woman in black, children in the town die.

This is not a straight adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 novel, or on the 1989 television adaptation. Watkins' take on this film is more of a re-imagining of the story. The plot differs in many ways, however, those differences make this version compelling, suspenseful, and as one movie goer described, "the film was like being on a roller coaster, or like having wild sex, my heart was pounding." For horror film aficionados, one sees scenes from "Dracula," in the way the town's people act toward Arthur. In some places I almost imagined the villagers warding him off with the sign of the cross, but that would be too obvious. Tim Maurice-Jones's shots of the dreary overcast, and the fog, rolling in around the mansion, with all the overgrowth of vegetation around the headstones that seem to surround the haunted house create exactly the right atmosphere for this film. The mansion itself is almost perfect. In some ways reminds me of the haunted mansion at Disneyland. At one hour and forty minutes, the film doesn't drag, due to the tight editing. Dressed in attire that date somewhere near the turn of the 20th century, both Radcliffe's, and Hind's interaction together as well as their interaction with the things that go bump, work well to convince the audience that you should be scared and that reason is right behind you.

Movie Data

Genre: Horror, Thriller
Year: 2012
Staring: Daniel Radcliffe,Ciarán Hinds
Director: James Watkins
Producer(s)Simon Oakes, Brian Oliver,Richard Jackson
Writer: James Watkins
Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Date: 3/2/2012

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