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Review: The Woman in Black

Hammer was always a mixed bag. You had the true classics like Dracula (1958) and The Devil Rides Out (1968). At the bottom were duds like The Terror of the Tongs (1961), Maniac (1963) and The Scars of Dracula (1970). Somewhere in the middle were the competent but perhaps-unremarkable films, such as The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and Paranoiac (1963). The Woman in Black belongs to this category: It’s a good film with some obvious flaws.Hammer fans appear elated at The Woman in Black, the new Gothic horror from their favourite studio. Much of the world seems to be with them in their love for the film. It recouped its production budget on its first weekend on itsUS release, doubling expectations, and now in its second week in theUK, it remains number one at the box office.

(Warning: Some spoilers — without giving too many details away — from now on.)

Daniel Radcliffe is only passable as young lawyer Arthur Kipps, sent to a remote village to manage the affairs of the late Alice Drablow, and finding all hell breaks loose on his arrival. Radcliffe is generally effective when he’s not talking, but his delivery of lines sounds (and always has sounded) to me like the slightly stilted, less-than-confident tones of a high school actor. Thankfully, Ciaran Hinds is as strong and steady a support as ever, and his presence makes up for what Radcliffe lacks.

As most critics have noted, the film is low on plot and characterization. We find out early on that Kipps has lost his wife and is on the verge of losing his job. For the sake of his four-year-old son, he sets off for Eel Marsh House, and the rest of the film concerns the increasingly eerie goings-on. These happenings, including scary apparitions, candle-lit explorations of the haunted house and a series of horrific infant deaths, are the substance of The Woman in Black. And they are executed, for the most part, excellently.

Director James Watkins draws on many techniques to bring out the terror, ranging from the cleverly subtle to the outrageously in-your-face. The latter techniques are weak and overused; in particular, the jump-scare shot of the title character’s face is repeated too often — the overall style was effective enough without relying on such a hackneyed technique.

The ending had a lot of potential, but it is poorly done. Again, a subtler approach would have been much more effective, even with the basic plot twist staying the same. As it is, the saccharine approach reduces the epilogue to the level of Touched by an Angel.

Nevertheless, these weaknesses are outweighed by generally effective direction, as well as superlative cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones. It’s an atmospheric, elegantly produced ghost story that does its job of chilling the bones.

Finally, Hammer fans are right to be pleased with the results, even if some, in their enthusiasm, have been too forgiving of the flaws. The Woman in Black is very much in continuity with Hammer horror of old. This may be the natural by-product of a return to period Gothic horror as much as the result of a conscious homage to old-school Hammer. Whichever it is, the film is certain proof that the vintage Hammer formula can still work, both critically and commercially, and doubtless that means more high-quality Gothic horror will be on the way.

About David L Rattigan

David L Rattigan is a British-Canadian freelance writer with interests ranging from religion, film, and language. His published writing includes Leaving Fundamentalism (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008, ed. G Elijah Dann), and articles for Third Way magazine and The Guardian’s Comment is Free website. He shares his love of Hammer horror at DictionaryofHammer.com

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