Monday, 13 February 2012

The Woman In Black (James Watkins, 2012) Review

Horror lurks around every corner in Hammer's Woman In Black (2012)

Based upon Susan Hill's seminal '83 horror novel, James Watkins' The Woman In Black is a true return to the Hammer tradition of yore, arriving as an impressively full-on Edwardian chiller and the perfect star vehicle for a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe. The former Boy Wizard plays Arthur Kipps, a recently widowed lawyer assigned to the ominous Eel Marsh House, cut off from the Crythin Gifford mainland; the town, like most in its wake, is clearly modeled around The Wicker Man's Summerisle. Here, whilst waiting for the arrival of his four-year-old son, Kipps becomes wrapped up in the mystery of The Woman In Black, a vengeful spirit who haunts the grounds and, whenever seen, takes a child's life. Jane "Kick-Ass" Goldman's screenplay, which was originally to be penned by Mark Gatiss, isn't the most faithful of adaptations, but as an excersise in creeping unease and shifting shadows it's an effectively low-key entry into Hammer's remerging canon...

The 22-year-old Radcliffe might not bear the full weight of Kipps' bereavement, but his commanding posture and steely gaze do lock us into the character during extended scare sequences, and despite a last-minute snip by the BBFC, Watkins still manages to mount dread like maestros Clayton (The Innocents, 1961) and Wise (The Haunting, 1963) before him. Indeed, the film's centerpiece - Kipps' macabre eventide in the Drablow residence - is fantastic, establishing and then eschewing clichés with an arch delight which feels right at home in the Hammer pantheon. Watkins frequently shoots Kipps in close-up, obscuring his surroundings with soft-focus lenses which so beautifully capture the rising corpse or turning screw-head of a ghostly antagonist, but subversively he leaves the frame empty. The audience becomes accustomed to this structure, eventually forgetting the intention of the setup, and then - bam! - Watkins slams a ghoulish visage into its purview at the exact moment we expect the opposite scare. There's also brilliant use of candlelight throughout, especially when illuminating the wandering eyes of porcelain dolls and monkeys.

The problem with Goldman's screenplay is its emphasis on the house, which thematically is the story's most uninteresting element. Crythin Gifford is plagued by Alice's (The Woman In Black) spectre, and the town's hermetic paranoia, communal sorrow and deep-rooted fear of outsiders - Kipps' very appearance heralds one of their children's deaths - could make for a fascinating psychological study. Indeed, the film's scariest moment (all I'll say is: burning basement) revolves around the children, but they're unforgivably allowed to become part of the background. Sam (Ciarán Hinds) and Elizabeth Daily (Janet McTeer) are the most fleshed out characters, and there's a brilliant scene where she (wedged between two little dogs) becomes possessed by Alice's spirit and starts scratching prophecies at the dinner table - it's mad as a bag of frogs, wonderfully campy and unnerving, and a moment of individuality amongst the grey sea of anonymity which mark the scenes in Drablow house. Watkins may find interesting ways to shoot familiar setups, but their familiarity is never in question, and his workaday aesthetic certainly doesn't separate Woman In Black from the dime-a-dozen imitations which have crowded multiplexes in Hammer's absence. The set and costume design is beautifully authentic, but this only renders the insipid palette more disappointing.

Goldman's most significant misstep comes with her clumsy re-write of the ending, which finds some degree of catharsis for Kipps. Watkins' previous horror, the mephitic, facile hoodie-horror Eden Lake (2008), doesn't feel like the natural precursor to a film this subdued, but its downbeat ending does seem a fit for the bleak sensibility of Hill's novel, which ends - terrifyingly - at a fairground catastrophe. Unfortunately, the twist here is dampened and derivative, leaving the audience feeling all warm inside when the twist's black coal lump should have pricked the hairs on their backs on its descent to the caverns of their churned stomachs...

The Woman In Black is in cinemas now...

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