Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a walking wound. Still mourning the death of his wife a couple of years after she gave birth to their son, the young lawyer has seen his career put into jeopardy and this worry is compounded by the bills beginning to stack up. The patience and sympathy of his boss is beginning to run out, and in a last chance to save his job, Arthur is given the task of heading to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House. Arthur's boss warns that the locals have been a bit uncooperative, a description the lawyer will soon find to be an understatement. And despite a calculated effort by the citizens, who literally put him on a carriage back to the station to catch the train to London, he perserveres, and is slowly ensnared in a mystery that has essentially paralyzed the town.
Penned by Jane Goldman ("X-Men: First Class," "Kick-Ass") and directed by James Watkins ("Eden Lake"), "The Woman In Black" is a satisfyingly old-school horror movie in nearly every aspect of the production from script to screen. The story by Goldman unfolds with a slow burn of dread and an increasingly compelling air of mystery, all rooted in the kind of character work we rarely expect from the genre. While Radcliffe will likely be under a ton of scrutiny in his first post-'Potter' lead role, many will dismiss his turn as one-dimensional, but that would be a mistake. His character is so deeply scarred by loss, that it has rendered him incapable of any other feeling. Even his son, in his crude crayon illustrations, can only draw him frowning. While "The Woman In Black" earns it scares, it's elevated by a thematic undercurrent about the devastation that death can forever leave on the living.
And certainly, Watkins ensures that unrelenting, dour feeling is felt throughout the picture. The sun never shines on Crythin Gifford, and the picture's dank and damp mood is heighted by the slate color palette, one that seems to deaden the small town even further. But more impressive is Watkins' confidence behind the camera. While his contemporaries have fallen into the latest aesthetic trend that equates handheld camera movements, maxed out volume, fast-cutting and gore, with thrills, this helmer shows how it can be done without editorial trickery. With artistry, a well-developed sense of setting (aided tremendously by the beautiful cinematography from Tim-Maurice Jones) and a firm vision, Watkins rarely dips into a bag of shorthand tricks.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the film's centerpiece section at the Eel Marsh House where Arthur has stayed for the night to work. The dialogue-free sequence finds Arthur, candle in hand, rooting out the strange sounds he hears in the house, and discovering he is not alone. But Watkins conveys the increasing thrills with an emphasis on atmosphere, where dark corners, old toys coming to life and a rocking chair restlessly swinging to and fro, are all carefully built upon one another to raise the tension to a fever pitch. And when it is snapped — by the appearance of the titular woman in black — the jolt feels organic and earned, and wholly part of a larger cloth woven skillfully by Watkins, who, along with Goldman's scipt, asks viewers to patiently await the payoff, and rewards that trust with genuine chills.
Supporting characters add texture, preventing the picture from backsliding into a monotonous, single-note tone of unrelenting fog and permanent grey skies. As Mr. Daily, the always reliable Ciaran Hinds is the film's lone voice of reason and logic who can't explain the events and violence that occur. And his wife, played by the wonderful Janet McTeer, is the closest the film ever comes to comic relief but it's a stretch saying that, as her secrets find a sympathetic ear in Arthur, while everyone else has written her off as mad. And this relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Daily — who are mourning the loss of a son — parallels the push and pull Arthur feels between the despair of his own loss and the promise that the burgeoning spritualism trend in the early 1900s gave to those who longed for a connection to persons who have passed on.
It's in the film's final act, though, that "The Woman In Black" truly elevates itself above its standard haunted house horror tropes. The secret weapon used to help Arthur try and put things right is nothing more than a modern invention — no strange hocus pocus here. But it's the ending that twists the knife and goes dark (or does it?) that truly impresses. It's a bold gambit, one that deftly balances the sour and the satisfying, but stays true to the story, closing the loop on the narrative firmly. And it's a brave move in a era when every studio wants something franchise-ready.
Hammer Films has been taking tentative steps back into feature filmmaking with decidedly mixed results. The Hilary Swank-starring horror "The Resident" more or less went straight to DVD, while no one remembers "Wake Wood." But along with "Let Me In," "The Woman In Black" sees Hammer getting their best quality work — unsurprisingly — out of auteurs who drop the conventions and rote practices of the genre and strive to do something different. For audiences feeling ripped off by "The Devil Inside," here's your antidote. [B+]