Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Woman In Black : Atmosphere For The Win

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While I had been looking forward to seeing The Woman In Black for the past several months, I wouldn't necessarily say I had been overly excited about the film, at least not as excited as many others in the community have been of late. Despite the fact that this is another venture for legendary British studio HAMMER, who have been churning out some real gems in the few short years since their under new ownership comeback (Let Me In/Wake Wood), as well as the fact that it's the second directorial effort of the man who brought us Eden Lake, one of my favorite horror films in recent years, there's just been something holding me back from getting too pumped up about this one. Ever since clips and trailers started coming our way a few months back, in anticipation for this past Friday's theatrical release, I couldn't help but feel like The Woman In Black was set to be another by the numbers haunted house flick, a generic rehashing of concepts and ideas from fright fest's past. Nevertheless, it was mostly the fact that Eden Lake's James Watkins was in the director's chair that got my ass in the theater last night. Oh who am I kidding, my ass would've shelled out the money to be in that theater whether I had any desire to see the movie or not. Such is the unwritten commitment of being a horror blogger!

So, now having seen The Woman In Black, were my initial judgements correct? Well let's just say that I pretty much got exactly from it what I expected to get from it, which isn't all that much of a bad thing, all things considered.

Before we go any further though, I wanted to quick mention something that I was not aware of in regards to this movie, until one of you guys over on the Facebook page informed me of it. Last night I made a status update over there saying that I was "Going to the theater to see a horror movie that's not in 3D, isn't a remake & doesn't feature any found footage". I quickly found myself wiping egg off my face when I was informed that The Woman In Black is in fact a remake of a 1989 TV movie of the same name, both films adapted from a 1983 novel by author Susan Hill (also called The Woman In Black). Just wanted to share that for anyone who was in the dark about that fact like I was. Funny enough, I also learned that this remake was originally going to be filmed in 3D, which it thankfully was not! In any event, the original TV movie apparently slipped into the public domain over the years and can be watched in full over on YouTube. Definitely want to check that one out at some point.

Now that I've filled you in on that information that you probably already knew, let's resume my thoughts, shall we?!

So ya, I expected a fairly generic haunted house movie and that's just about note for note what I got from this one. Rife with jump scares aplenty, creepy dolls, lunging CG ghosts & cryptic messages underneath old wallpaper, The Woman In Black is in essence your run of the mill creaky floorboard haunted house flick. That said, it's a very well done run of the mill creaky floorboard haunted house flick.

The film left me feeling very much the same way last year's Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark did, another film that was coincidentally also a loose remake of a TV movie. In the same way that I really had nothing bad to say about that one, aside from the familiar trappings of its execution, I really have nothing bad to say about The Woman In Black either, aside from the same complaints of genericism. Though by all means a well made old school ghost film, The Woman In Black's only real fault is that many other well made ghost films have come before it, oftentimes going about their business in strikingly similar fashion. Much like I would've appreciated Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark a heck of a lot more had I never seen a Guillermo Del Toro movie before it, the same can be said for this one in regards to haunted house cinema. Again though, that's just about the only thing bad that I really have to say about the movie, so don't let that detract from the fact that I found it to ultimately be a very well made and all around solid film, one that's paint by numbers approach to the storytelling doesn't change the fact that it comes out smelling like a rose in a genre populated largely by flat out bad movies. If the worst you can say about a horror movie is that it's good but derivative, then there's really not much to complain about.

The Woman In Black is a bit of a star vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe, a sort of showcase of the fact that he can have a career outside of the Harry Potter films. Though the script unfortunately doesn't allow him to do all that much or display much range, serious props must be given to young Radcliffe for commanding the screen and fully embodying the character he plays, never once making me think of him as the young wizard with the lightning bolt on his forehead. Even though he's only in his early 20's, and is largely known for his child stardom, Radcliffe never for a second seemed out of place as Arthur Kipps, a wise beyond his years father who lost his wife during the birth of their son. I honestly expected to find myself giggling over the sight of Harry Potter being a father (bet that makes ya feel old, eh?!) and battling ghosts, but Radcliffe totally owns the part and completely sheds the Potter image altogether, which is an impressive feat. Again, he really doesn't get to do or say all that much throughout the movie, but even when he's just walking around the haunted house by himself, not uttering a single word, Radcliffe manages to be captivating and a pleasure to watch, which I've gotta commend him for. Looks like that's one child star that's got a bright future ahead of him as an adult actor. Just stay away from the drugs, Danny boy!

Again I must stress that though I found The Woman In Black to be a bit too predictable and cookie cutter, it's a fine film all around, one that's got several things going for it that I quite liked. For one, the story is solid, not just a tale of a scared dude trapped inside a haunted house but rather one of a man who is desperately trying to prove the existence of spirits in an effort to show himself that his wife is not just forever lost in some black abyss somewhere. At its core, the story is about Radcliffe's search for hope, the hope that two people can in fact be reunited in the afterlife, a hope that forces him to put himself into some pretty frightening situations. I liked this idea a whole lot and it added a nice layer of realism to the story, never once raising the "why the hell doesn't he just leave the goddamn house?!" question that most of these types of movies make us ponder and roll our eyes at. That said, some of the complexity and exploration of that solid story is tossed away in favor of quick jump scares at times, which is kind of a shame. Would've liked to have seen some of those strong ideas explored a bit more. Nevertheless, the story does reach a strong and satisfying conclusion, even if it is a predictable one.

The main highlight of the film for me though is the rich atmosphere, which largely must be credited to the house chosen as the haunted location and the incredible Oscar worthy job the set decorators did on turning it into what truly looks like an uber creepy lived in house from the past. In movies like this one atmosphere is half the battle, and The Woman In Black valiantly triumphs in that half of the battle. The movie is beautiful to look at and those visuals and locations were what really impressed me most about the whole thing. In fact, it was surprisingly those scenes where Radcliffe is just walking around the dimly lit by candlelight house, exploring its creepiness and seeing things out of the corner of his eye, that I found most enjoyable to watch. Go figure.

Taking the haunted house flick back to its classy old school roots and delivering a story more akin to vintage horrors like The Changeling than recent hits such as the Paranormal Activity films, HAMMER has in my opinion crafted another hit with The Woman In Black, a more than formidable addition to their quickly growing catalogue of impressive new era horror films. Though it apes heavily from haunted horror films past and relies a bit too much on jump scares over any real sense of lasting terror, The Woman In Black provides some genuine thrills and chills set inside a wonderfully creepy haunted house, bolstered by strong performances all around, making it an effective entry into the annals of atmospheric haunted house horror. If you're into that sort of thing, and don't mind healthy doses of predictability and rehashed ideas in your horror films, then I really can't think of any reason to dissuade you from dropping your dough on this one. It gets the job done and is an enjoyable watch, more than anything else.

That said, I'd personally recommend you get your fix of moody HAMMER horror with last year's Wake Wood instead, another film that deals heavily with the theme of dead children, in a much more original and effective fashion. Seek that one out if you haven't yet. Though a totally different kind of film on every level, I also once again strongly encourage you to check out Watkins' previous film Eden Lake, a dark descent into human on human hell that certainly aint for the weak of heart.

1 comment:

MJ said...

Here in the UK, the Woman In Black is predominanlty known for it's West End play that has been running for a long time. That's actually fairly eerie and is recommended to any lovers of Ghost Stories.

(Fittingly I would also recommend the play 'Ghost Stories' for the same reason!)