Now that Hammer Studios is releasing films again, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is definitely a callback to those films that the studio is famous for. It has brooding atmosphere, delivers tension in the quieter moments, and none of the performances are played for laughs or camp. Where THE WOMAN IN BLACK stumbles a little bit is when it tries to jolt the audience and each little bump and squeal on the soundtrack deflates the mood.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young attorney struggling at a law firm in London. He has his hands full taking care of his little boy Joseph (Misha Handley) alone. His wife died giving birth to Joseph and Arthur hasn't mended from that loss. His work has fallen behind, and his boss tells him that if he can't get this latest job in order the firm will have to let him go. So Arthur leaves Joseph with his nanny and makes his way out of town. The job entails getting the final paperwork of Mrs. Alice Drablow in order, who recently died and left her estate, Eel Marsh House, in shambles. The local townsfolk avoid the place like the plague, and the town seems to have very few children living in it. Local landowner Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) offers to help Arthur make his way in the town, but it becomes obvious very quickly that things are not right.
Once Arthur gets to Eel Marsh, things take a definite turn for the supernatural as Arthur hears strange noises, has odd visions, and sees a woman all dressed in black throughout the grounds. When he sees her, a child dies in the village, causing him to be scorned and reviled. The town is cursed as more children meet tragic ends. Arthur soon realizes that he is inside a mystery, and if he wants to keep his son out of danger, he must solve the riddle of the Woman in Black.
Daniel Radcliffe has grown up to be a good actor, and I think he made the right choice making a movie like this as a transition out of his Potter years. He's young, but believable as a father and as events go south he is the audience surrogate through the funhouse thrills of the movie. An extended sequence, with Arthur alone in Eel Marsh, was particularly effective; with little dialogue and an escalation of tension, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is quite an effective ghost story. Ciaran Hinds is always a pleasure to watch and Janet McTeer is good as Daily's wife, who has been devastated by the loss of their own son.
My main issue with the movie is that when the jolts and scares come they feel right out of a modern-day horror film and spoil the mood. The Woman In Black herself is frightening enough without the excessive score, the noise, and the screams as the movie tries to make you jump out of your seat. The story is good, and as the plot reveals itself the movie is always interesting; but it feels like the jumps are there strictly for the teen crowd, and the screening I saw THE WOMAN IN BLACK at was full of them, jumping and screaming over every little titter in the soundtrack. I realize that with an actor like Radcliffe headlining, that audience is the demographic that the movie is aiming for, but THE WOMAN IN BLACK works best in the quieter moments, as Arthur tries to figure out the puzzle of the story.
Director James Watkins is fairly new, having written THE DESCENT PART 2 and directed EDEN LAKE, an actually quite good Michael Fassbender horror film that you should check out. With THE WOMAN IN BLACK, Watkins has made a movie straight out of the Hammer wheelhouse and deserving of the label. I just wish it didn't play to the younger crowd so much and if it hadn't, THE WOMAN IN BLACK would be a much creepier movie. As it is, it's still quite good, and hopefully you'll see it without a bunch of screaming kids as background noise. But it's worthy of Hammer.