Daniel Radcliffe takes some unexpectedly large strides towards banishing the ghost of the Potter franchise from his CV, with this taut and traditional thriller from horror studio Hammer. The Woman in Black is absorbing, atmospheric and absolutely terrifying.
I looked at the trailer for The Woman in Black for X-Media Online last year. Aside from assaulting Radcliffe’s new project with pathetic Potter puns, I decided that, on the basis of the conventional trailer, cinemagoers were unlikely to be falling off their seats in terror on its release. How wrong I was. There is a chunk of The Woman in Black’s running time, perhaps half an hour in length, which consists of nothing but back to back scares in a big haunted house. I’m not sure precisely how long this section of the film was because I was writhing in my seat, reduced to a nervous wreck by the tension.
The trailer was so underwhelming because the story seemed so familiar. The empty house with ghosts lurking in the shadows has been done to death (pardon the pun). It’s impressive then that The Woman in Black hits all the right scary notes. Other reviews have argued that the film is ‘jumpy’ rather than frightening. There are certainly shocks aplenty via the usual tricks of reflections and whatnot, but these moments are elevated beyond a mere ‘jump’ by the quality of the execution and the intrigue of the story.
Gradually Radcliffe’s character, a lawyer called Kipps fighting for his job, begins to piece together the web of betrayal in the past of Eel Marsh house, eerily cut off from the nearest village by a causeway. Strange and tragic goings on start to connect around one woman’s dark and depressing life, as hysteria and hostility towards Kipps escalates in the village. The chilling scares are so unsettling because of their power to disturb as well as shock. The opening scene of the film hones in on creepy period details, like the faces of dolls, before three little girls do something inexplicable.
It’s perhaps not surprising that The Woman in Black doesn’t disappoint with its gripping story, given its pedigree on the page and stage. It’s a reminder that a simple tale, well told, can be cinematic gold, with the film comfortably beating The Muppets to top the box office. You could argue that Radcliffe has little to do, besides run around and look confused. But he does what’s required of him well and surprisingly convinces as a father (to an impossibly cute child actor). At the climax of the film we care about their fate and feel satisfyingly high on horror.