You don’t realize how hard it is to make a scary haunted-house film till you see one that isn’t. The problem with the genre is that horrors confined to particular domiciles or environs are, in theory, easy to evade, as Eddie Murphy pointed out in his famously succinct critique of Poltergeist: “There’s a ghost in the house? Get the fuck out.”
To make a great confined-space horror film, like Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage or Robert Wise’s The Haunting or Ti West’s The House of the Devil, the filmmakers need to convince us the protagonist has a compelling reason not just to “get the fuck out,” whether it’s intellectual curiosity or greed or some sort of emotional bond to the place or spirit in question. Without a solid motivation in place, the character who lingers in a house of horrors becomes a transparent pretext to terrorize the audience, and the movie turns about as scary as your standard horror-themed carnival ride.
That’s the core problem with The Woman in Black, a movie endowed with tons of gorgeous gothic bric-a-brac but absolutely no surprises. Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor sent to wrap up a wealthy widow’s affairs in a desolate English coastal village at the dawn of the 20th century. The cagey townspeople do everything in their power to discourage him from venturing to the deceased’s mist-swept home, Eel Marsh House — they all but scream in his face, “That place is cursed!”
But, of course, Arthur ignores these troubling signs and goes about his lawyer business with Victorian stolidity. The sighting of a black-dressed figure in the graveyard, and the odd sounds he hears in the vast, drafty house, do nothing to dissuade him from returning there for an all-night paperwork session. Meanwhile, the village’s children have begun succumbing to Edward Gorey-esque fates. While the viewer can see that Arthur’s work ethic threatens everyone in his vicinity, this doesn’t seem to occur to our hero until his own young son (Misha Handley) enters harm’s way.
Scriptwriter Jane Goldman, adapting the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, gives Arthur a nominal motive for his denseness: He’s distraught over his wife’s death and anxious about keeping his job. Radcliffe endows the character with more nuance and vulnerability than he ever brought to his role as Harry Potter. And director James Watkins, who made the harrowing modern-day horror story Eden Lake, is perfectly competent at pacing the scares.
Yet the film never comes together as anything more terrifying than a theme-park attraction gleefully designed by Tim Burton. Perhaps it’s the predominance of jump scares in the early scenes; or the risible overuse of creepy dolls and windup toys as a motif; or the hokey story behind the hauntings; or the fact that the final dark twist is a foregone conclusion to anyone familiar with The Ring.
For all its tired clichés, on a visual level, this Hammer Film is no cheesy Hollywood horror flick. From the soot-covered town of Crythin Gifford to the decaying glories of Eel Marsh House, each ominous setting is as fiendishly detailed as a good picture-book illustration.
Indeed, for sheltered kids old enough to weather some shocks, The Woman in Black might be a perfectly respectable choice for My First Nightmare-Inducing Horror Movie. (Who better to shepherd them through the experience than Harry Potter?) For adult genre fans, though, its charm is limited to atmosphere. A sickening sense of inevitability presides over most ghost stories, but we still want the characters to put up their best fight.