Friday, February 3, 2012

'Woman in Black' review: More old-school gothic thriller than frightfest


The scene early on in The Woman in Black when a little girl gurgles up a mouthful of brilliant red blood then promptly croaks pretty much sums up the entire movie for me: A bit hokey at times, but spooky fun.

Starring Daniel (erstwhile Harry Potter) Radcliffe, and directed by James Watkins, The Woman in Black follows Radcliffe’s attorney Arthur Kipps – still consumed with grief years after his wife died giving birth to their young son - as he journeys to an English village to settle the estate of a recently-deceased woman. Aside from its wealthiest resident Samuel Daily (Ciaran Hinds) who takes to the young man, the townsfolk are unwelcoming to Kipps, and repeatedly attempt to dissuade him from visiting the woman’s mansion on a marsh.

Of course, Kipps does go to the mansion, and while there he begins to hear rattles, creaks, footsteps and see things that come standard with any good haunted house. Meanwhile, the spike in the already-high death rate of kids in town coincides with Kipps’ experiences at the estate. Instead of actually being thrown a bone by the village people, and maybe getting a few tips about the mansion’s pissed-off ghost hellbent on vengeance for past wrongdoing, Kipps has to unravel the secret on his own.

Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, and produced by the resurrected horror company Hammer Films (in conjunction CBS Films and Cross Creek Pictures), Woman is an old-school gothic thriller where unrelenting terror and gore is absent but startles and creepy ambiance is plentiful. Instead of being a modern, deconstructed frightfest, the film pays tribute to classics where perpetually gray English weather, drafty rooms and long, dark hallways could set a mood without irony.

Sure, the shifty-eyed, suspicious townspeople could easily be promoted to an angry mob in a monster movie, and a couple of the jumps are akin to those viral video cheap shots. But Watkins successfully conveys that shadows are not your friend – and that just because you see someone oozing out of the darkness doesn’t mean that’s when something is going to happen. Still, he sometimes lets his camera linger a little too much (we get it, porcelain dolls are creepy as hell) and there are some logistical holes in the eponymous woman’s overall motivation. As far as Radcliffe’s performance in his first big non-Potter film, his Kipps is in a near-constant morose funk throughout the flick, but he does a fine job acting opposite shadows and silence.

The Woman in Black won’t have you running out of the theater, or keep you up at night, but it’s good for a few scares and a lot of spooks.