dir: James Watkins
Creepy, very creepy. Victorian England is so very creepy. England is creepy.
All those orphans. That fog. All those smokestacks. All those debtors prisons and cholera and rickets.
And they apparently cornered the market on vengeful ghosts way before the Japanese jumped on the bandwagon.
The Woman in Black isn’t a redo of Wilkie Collins’ alleged classic The Woman in White, just with an African American flavour to the proceedings. Plus, I overstated the creepiness of the era. And it’s not set in the Jack the Ripperesque Victorian era: it’s the Edwardian era, because someone’s got a shiny new newly invented car.
The old timey car is somewhat creepy, though, but nowhere near as creepy as everything else that goes on here. Reminiscent somewhat of poor Harker in the Bram Stoker Dracula novel, a young lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe, yes, Harry Potter himself) is sent out to an isolated mansion to settle the estate of a woman recently dead. He himself is grieving for the death of his wife several years earlier.
This is a ghostly horror story after all, and a sense of dread permeates almost every moment of screen time. It’s in everything: the hairstyles, the clothes, the fog, the architecture, everything. Even the eel pie and the candelabras all drip with dread.
Arthur (Radcliffe) is a bit of a drip, bit of a depressed drip at that. His own darling little son draws pictures of him moping all the time. Nothing wrong with a bit of a mope every now and then, but really, Arthur, snap out of it. This is not the era with any modicum of sensitivity towards anyone clearly suffering from clinical depression. Back then the cure would have been three hours in a radium bath and a snifter of laudanum, because they were, as we would think, unenlightened times.
That’s what his insensitive boss says at least, forcing him to take on a job he’s clearly not up for. Underperforming on the job, or getting a crappy evaluation is the least of this chap’s worries, because he has no idea what he’s in for.
Arriving by train at this eight person town filled to the brim with dour, surly types, he tries valiantly to step up and get the job done. Everyone else is on his case, hindering him, telling him to leave, not to ask questions, and most of all not to stick around.
The bit I’ve deliberately left our till now is that at the film’s very beginning we are shown three girls playing in an attic. Their laughter and doll-manipulating joy stops for some reason we can’t know yet, as they get up and then fling themselves from the window. Defenestration is nasty at the best of times, but seeing kids do it right at the start of the flick sets us up for the unsettling story that is to come.
Arthur arrives at a house so isolated and so cursed looking that it’s almost comical. It’s even called Eel Pie Hall or something similar. The daily tides isolate the house even more from the rest of England. And for all of the gloom the place is a receptacle for, it’s also got a horrible, tragic history to go along with the décor, which I’m sure will come as a surprise.
When he arrives at the place, it is just a dirty, grimy manor that he needs to clean up, legally speaking, so he can then get on with the rest of his life. He has no inkling of what he’s in for, because why would he know any different? He hasn’t watched any ghost horror flicks yet, presumably, since they haven’t been invented, and he can’t hear the music we hear whenever something creepy is about to happen. Those violin strings are like a dagger to the ear hole.
But happen it does, and Arthur goes from being a maudlin, emotionally shut down dweeb into being an increasingly frazzled insomniac dweeb. The stuff that goes on, fleeting glimpses of ghosts, odd sounds, a woman clad exclusively in black lounging around the place, Harry Potter not wearing his trademark glasses, only slowly escalates the tension from Arthur’s perspective. From our perspective, the film is trying to make us jump and quail in terror every few minutes or so, with a frightening mechanical regularity.
Like a musical composition, there’s a rhythm to how it’s done here, let’s just step outside of the flick for the moment. There are moments where what’s happening is something only we can see, happening outside of Arthur’s line of sight, or even peripheral vision. That’s meant just to freak us out. In other circumstances, Arthur’s curiousity or pursuit of something, like the source of a noise or something glimpsed, seems to be leading to an obvious scare, which dissipates, only to be compounded by a bigger scare, something that should be known as adding insult to injury.
The director knows what he’s doing and where he’s going with a flick like this. I watched it on a Monday night at a preview screening last week, and the beats of the flick had a three-quarters-filled cinema jumping out of their fucking skins. It didn’t just happen to them, mind you, because even as I could anticipate what was about to happen, and even the inevitable fake-outs, it still made me jump a few metres out of my seat with embarrassing frequency.
The flick is so well constructed, so patiently horripilating that I didn’t really have any choice in the matter. Even if I’ve seen a million of these flicks, it doesn’t work as an inoculation against the frisson of terror I felt quite often.
Radcliffe’s abilities or lack thereof as an actor don’t even matter in such an instance. All he has to do is be alone and walk around as an audience substitute, and his paycheck is earned. No-one is going to see this and think he’s broken out of the box success put him in, because most of his performance is myopic and wordless. The longest stretch of the flick, and the most terrifying, is dialogue-free, and does more to pound down the resistances, the defences of the audience than any other element of the plot.
The plot itself is still unsettling, how could it not be when you have a story where kids are compelled to kill themselves, but it’s more the tension generated at the haunted manor that sells the story and drags us unwillingly into the story. As I said, the actual plot is nothing I want to discuss, because someone watching it after reading this review might curse my name and devote the rest of their life until their dying day to get revenge on me for spoiling it, but I will say, in a pissy way, it’s nothing new, nor is it going to set the world alight. We’ve all seen it before, even in films from other cultures and completely different spiritual beliefs and aesthetics. It all ends with the same ultimate point: the angry dead do not forgive and do not forget.
Even with all that guff, it didn’t matter. The Woman in Black did exactly what it promised to do, and for that I cannot fault it. The ending is suitably in keeping with the rest of the flick, and even then represents a risk that they took probably worth making. Daniel Radcliffe isn’t going to convince anyone about the range of his acting abilities based on this flick, but it hardly matters. He’s probably earned so much money from those seven movies that he spends time wondering what to do with the rest of his life now that even the worst profligacy and George Best – rock star like extravagances couldn’t bankrupt him. Still, you’ve got to keep busy, don’t you?
He’s probably trying to earn some credibility as a serious actor, and no-one told him that staring as the almost mute lead of a horror flick isn’t the path to critical glory that he imagined.
The star of this flick is that awful house, and all that gloom, the impenetrable gloom, and a Woman, all dressed in Black, who refuses to be placated, who will not be denied, who will have her way no matter what.
Just like most goth women clad all in black.
7 times I felt like an idiot for squealing like a little girl with such frequency out of 10
“I will never forgive” - words to die by – The Woman in Black