The Woman in Black Review: Spooky Suspenseful Shockathon!

The first must watch film of 2012 confirms that Hammer Horror is back as a force to be reckoned with!

rating: 4.5

Sit up and take note folks, the first truly awesome film of 2012 is about to be unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences. The Woman in Black, the new movie from Hammer Film Productions no less is a sublime, suspenseful, spook-a-thon horror that lives up to its creepy Susan Hill written source material novella but even more amazingly, lives up to its bloody terrifying stage play adaptation that has inflicted nightmares on kids in Britain for decades. This is a ghost story of the highest caliber. Any film that can reduce a grown woman to SCREAM out loud as if her own life was in danger and induce at least ten jump-out-of-your-seat moments is a worthy chiller. This alone though, of course, does not make any film a must-see, or even a great film; however, combine this ability to cause emote in audiences with a haunting score, a taut script from a gifted storyteller and the direction of a man who is fast proving to be one of the best filmmakers in this genre, and you have one of the best horror films of recent years. In his first post-Harry Potter leading role, Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a debt-ridden junior solicitor plagued by the death of his wife who died giving birth to his four-year old son. For work he travels to the small, coastal town of Crythin Gifford to get the affairs in order of the late Alice Drablow, a reclusive widow who lived alone in Eel Marsh House €“ an ominous, deserted mansion, situated on a desolate causeway, which at high tide is completely cut off from the mainland. Kipps is greeted with hostility by the suspicious locals; refused a room at the inn and sent on his way by the local mayor with €œall the necessary paperwork€ he will need to carry out the investigation. Above all he is warned away from Eel Marsh House. But under pressure by his boss to seal this deal, Kipps endeavors to prove his worth and travels through the marshland to the eerie, deserted old mansion €“ reminiscent of the classic haunted house. After a series of unnerving events and spooky occurances that makes Kipps and us question whether he is letting the town€™s superstitions get to him or whether he is losing his mind, the creeking and the cracking in the house escalate and sightings of a haunting spctre of a woman make it clear that Kipps is not alone in Eel Marsh House. Soon, the late Mrs. Drablow, who manifests herself in the form of a pale woman shrouded in black starts to make her presence known in the house and town. When the town€™s children start to die in increasingly brutal circumstances, Kipps is targeted by the devestated townspeople who blame him for disturbing the twisted old lady and provoking the curse she put on the town who she blames for the death of her son. From the opening scene of three pretty, little girls playing with eerie porcelain dolls then abruptly and inexplicably standing up and throwing themselves out the window, the atmosphere is truly set for a disturbing and creepy ninety minutes; and what followed surpassed even my greatest expectations from this source material. I€™m a great admirer of the film€™s director James Watkins and his reputation must surely be growing with every feature. The shoe-string budget horror My Little Eye (2002), which he wrote showed he had a talent for thinking up original horror, and his directorial feature, the brutal and brilliant Eden Lake (2008) left me deeply affected and fearful of people from The North and teenagers. Here Watkins cements his talents as a director, using a taught script penned by Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) based on the popular Susan Hill novela. He creates and maintains an uncomfortable, tense and always menacing atmosphere while unfolding a story filled with humanity and resonance. The setting of a cold, grey coastal town is used to great effect and what€™s more feels very real and authentic, as do the people that inhabit the world. Watkins choice of shots and cuts are also deeply important to the uncomfortable feel of the piece and equally integral is Marco Beltrami's ghostly score. However, the real thrills start once Watkins has Radcliffe alone in the mansion at night; then it€™s playtime. Watkins plays with isolation, the state of Kipps€™ mindset and the darkness and coldness of the Gothic old building and deploys a series of protracted mini shocks to unsettle the nerves before unleashing a number of scenes that got the kind of reactions that make theatre ushers prepare to mop down the seats after the showing. A scene in the supposedly empty mansion where a rocking chair starts to viciously rock back and forth at the far end of a corridor, which Radliffe slowly makes his way down, is one of the most tense and suspenseful scenes I have ever witnessed. Watkins milks the suspense and stretches the band of tolerance to a ripping point before releasing it with a shocking coup de grace. This is one of a number of shock moments that had members of the audience jumping out of their seats. Somehow Watkins manages to defy the law of diminishing returns; perhaps this is because the shocks are so well spread out or maybe because they escalate in effect, or simply because they€™re all so distinct and well executed. Whatever it is, the audience jumped at every single intended one. Furthermore what is wonderful is the fact we never fully see the ghost or monster if you will, until the very end. She is drip fed to us; we see glimpses of her, and the quick cutting make it impossible to make out exactly what she looks like. It€™s a basic tool but one sadly lacking in modern horror with the director getting over excited about showing us a supposedly terrifying monster. The mind can produce something a thousand times scary than any computer! Perhaps Watkins could have played with us a little more, getting the audience to question whether Kipps was going mad or whether we saw what we thought we saw? Perhaps being a little more subtle with the reveal of the ghost instead of making it very clear from early on that there was a female spectre in the house would have been nice? But this is a minor detail. The film does have a weak link; Daniel €˜can€™t shake Harry Potter€™ Radcliffe shows in his first film foray since the end of the Potter franchise that he has some task on his hands to make a name for himself on screen that doesn€™t carry the initials H.P. His performance here rivals Keanu Reeves€™ infamous portrayal of Jonathan Harker in Francis Ford Coppola€™s misguided attempt to bring Bram Stoker€™s Dracula to screen. And that isn't a kind comparison. It€™s not entirely Radcliffe€™s fault; he is miscast in the role. Older actors like Michael Fassbender and Colin Farrell were both attached at various points to make the film but had to pull out over scheduling and Hammer decided they could get away with a younger actor when Radcliffe became available. The fact is though it€™s hard enough to take the youthful and diminutive Radcliffe seriously as a junior solicitor, but as a father of a four-year-old child? It€™s almost as laughable as that moment at the end of the final Potter film where they age him. And while I appreciate he is twenty-two years old, which is certainly old enough to be a junior solicitor and a father of four, particularly as it is set around the end of the 19th/ early part of the 20th century, it is hard to believe him as this and his acting does little to convince. He looks and sounds like a whiney teenager, and everything his character does seems alien to the way he looks and sounds. Then in the third act there is an implausible scene where he accomplishes a feat that Thor would struggle with, let alone weedy Radcliffe. Once can€™t help wonder whether a more skilled young actor would have done better to convince in the role. Despite this weak link the film manages not to suffer very much; Radcliffe has little dialogue and the suspense created by the makers and then the power of shocks are so strong and effective that you€™re paying less concentration to Radcliffe€™s facial expressions and more to trying to prepare yourself for the terror that imminently approaches. It€™s an amazing feeling to be in a cinema and find yourself and everyone around you immersed in the action, so much so to the point you actually place yourself in the scenario. I saw people sweating, tensing up, biting their nails, closing their eyes, covering their heads and even grasping on to the arms of strangers in a way I don€™t recall seeing in a cinema before. The Woman in Black is anything but an original piece; the story and its features are archetypal and derivative, owing much to a thousand other ghost stories and horror movies: the haunted house, ghosts, bloody deaths, baron moors, desolate marshes, superstitious townsfolk. But I€™m a great admirer of classic tales taken and told well using the art of filmmaking. And that€™s what Watkins has created here: a taught, chilling, ghost story that pushes the boundaries of violence and terror, which worthy of modern audience. And what€™s more he has managed to create something that it feels like a classic, old Hammer Horror. It€™s an homage to the old films the reborn studio used to churn out by the dozen in the 60€™s and 70€™s, but where they were often criticised for being hackneyed, The Woman in Black is a master class in horror movie filmmaking; the first must watch horror of 2012 that continues to establish Watkins as a strong horror director and confirm that Hammer Horror is back as a force to be reckoned with. The Woman in Black is released in US cinemas from February 2nd and in the UK on February 9th.
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Frustratingly argumentative writer, eater, reader and fanatical about film ‘n’ food and all things fundamentally flawed. I have been a member of the WhatCulture family since it was known as Obsessed with Film way back in the bygone year of 2010. I review films, festivals, launch events, award ceremonies and conduct interviews with members of the ‘biz’. Follow me @FilmnFoodFan In 2011 I launched the restaurant and food criticism section. I now review restaurants alongside film and the greatest rarity – the food ‘n’ film crossover. Let your imaginations run wild as you mull on what that might look like!