Grade: B- (RENT IT)
THE VICTORIANS MAY not have invented the tale of the haunted house but they sure as hell perfected it. There’s the “dreadful house” in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” – hand-chosen by none other than Mr. Charles Dickens for his journal Household Words in 1852 – outside which an “evil child” lurks in the snow. Then there’s Dracula’s love-pad which Stoker describes as a “vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”
True to vampiric roots, Hollywood has sucked the life out of most, if not all, of the horror tropes bequeathed to us by the Victorians and “The Woman in Black,” director James Watkins’ new film, from a Susan Hill novel from 1983, is no exception. Set in the early 1900s, it’s as chockfull of clichés – dead kids, rocking chairs, handprints on window panes, doors that grind and groan as they open – as it is candles, antique dolls, and things that go bump in the night. One more close-up of a cymbal-banging monkey toy and I would have gone bananas. Nevertheless, the titular woman is one scary chick and proof that a motionless silhouette standing in head-to-toe black amongst headstones still has the power to unnerve us.
The house in question, including its family cemetery, is for sale and that’s where lawyer Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe) comes in: leaving his son behind, the young widower travels by train to a north England village called Crythin Gifford to prepare the house for purchase. If the villagers look as if they’ve seen a ghost, that’s because they have. Ignoring their warnings, Arthur traverses the marshlands surrounding the estate and begins poking around. The only local who doesn’t pull down the shade as Kipps approaches is Mr. Daily (played by the great Ciaran Hinds with his doleful eyes and downturned mouth). Mrs. Daily (Janet McTeer) is grieving the death of their son Nicholas and carving the image of a hanged woman in her dining room table with a butter knife. If this doesn’t get those thick eyebrows on Radcliffe raised, the supernatural somersaults he sees once inside the house certainly do. Yet his friend Mr. Daily remains a skeptic. “It’s just an old place,” he tells Arthur, “cut off from the world.”
Not so, Arthur learns the hard way, and the best portion of “The Woman in Black” is its last act when all the apparitions come out to play; despite its 95-minute running time, it still feels long, as marshy and slow-going as those wagon wheels stuck in the wetlands outside. Very little here feels freshly inspired though it manages to get under your skin without a heavy dose of blood and guts.
Consider it Radcliffe’s post-Potter depression.