Review: Woman in Black relies on Radcliffe and cheap thrills


Photo: Nick Wall

Daniel Radcliffe has made looking worried and fighting evil computer-generated spirits into a profession. Pluck The Boy Who Lived from the stony halls of Hogwarts, stick him into a dusty haunted house, and the result will be just the same: a very nervous and frantic Radcliffe fighting the malevolent ghosts that just can’t seem to leave him alone. Director James Watkins and scripter Jane Goldman forced cheap thrills and Radcliffe’s notoriety as the ultimate ghost hunter to fill the obvious gaps in character development.  

Based on a novel by Susan Hill (turned into a play and a 1989 made-for-British-TV film) Woman in Black is an atmospheric, vintage horror film that preys on those who fear ghosts and children. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer with a young son who gets his last chance at financial redemption. He is assigned to visit a remote village in order to settle the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman, Mrs. Drablow. As soon as Kipps arrives to the parish, he is greeted with hostility.

The country folk watch Kipps with suspicion, avoiding all contact with him. They believe Mrs. Drablow’s estate is haunted by the ghost of a woman who feeds her spirit with human suffering. This “woman in black” is assumed to be connected with the deaths of the village’s children (all of whom seemed to have been cast for their ability to express nothing but stone cold apathy). However, Arthur Kipps does not fear angry apparitions.  

“I’d rather just work through the night,” says Kipps as he enters the house. That’s the spirit!

Watkins and Goldman did not put a lot of thought into what came next. They had the perfect set up. The lonely Kipps is spending the night at a haunted house filled with cobwebs, stuffed monkeys, demonic looking dolls, and a violent spirit. It’s raining outside. He looks tense. He’s wearing a vest. Apparently there is no need to develop character and plot when you can throw in a few unnatural shadows, a squeaky rocking chair, and the black silhouette of a woman. Just alternate these elements for about forty minutes and the audience will be sweating apprehension. It was a cheap thrill, which is too bad. This movie had potential to tackle the subjects of loss and grief, but instead it became medley of vulgar tricks.

The cinematography, dark and dismal (as one would expect) was the only redeeming factor of this film. The beautiful English country side, with its rolling green hills, stone cottages covered with veins of ivy, and mysterious fog provided a striking setting for this eerie creation. The swooping landscape shots and the unnerving close ups of old dolls provided a cinematographic diversity that was both pleasing and chilling.    

Predictable from the first ten minutes, the culmination was dry and lacking in imagination. Woman in Black leaves the viewer with nothing but sweaty palms and the sounds of 19th century music boxes ringing through the dark crevices of the mind.