Daniel Radcliffe ably sheds his Harry Potter
persona very nearly instantaneously in "The Woman in Black," a shiveringly handsome adaptation of the 1983 novella by Susan Hill. Pitting one unwelcome visitor against a ghostly mansion of horrors is a formula older than movies themselves, but director James Watkins (he of 2008's chilling "Eden Lake") exhibits such an artful know-how for scaring the pants off his audience that it doesn't matter. With just a couple of exceptions where he tips his hand a little too obviously toward spelled-out manipulation, Watkins keeps things absorbingly creepy in a subdued fashion until just the right moments when he's ready to pounce. When he does, watch out. It isn't every day that a film causes the hair on one's legs to stand up on end. "The Woman in Black" achieves this more than once.
With mounting unpaid bills and a job dangling in the balance, young widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) bids farewell to his 4-year-old son Joseph (Misha Handley) and the boy's nanny (Jessica Raine) and travels to the lonesome village of Crythin Gifford in Northeast England. Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova), the last surviving resident of the desolate Eel Marsh House, has recently passed, and it is up to Arthur to go through all of her papers and locate the most current version of her will. The job will take a week, but the property, separated from civilization by a forever rising and falling marshland, isn't exactly the kind of place one dreams of holidaying at. A spectral woman cloaked in noir prowls the property, vengeance for the young son who was taken away from her and allowed to drown decades before the only thing on her mind.
Arthur, whose beloved wife died during childbirth, is an upstanding if sad-faced man whose livelihood depends on him getting his job done at the foreboding Eel Marsh. Though he begins seeing things he cannot explain almost immediately, it is his sticky financial circumstances that explain away why he doesn't just pick up and go at the first sight of the title character, seen standing motionless out by the fog-shrouded garden. Treated by all of the townspeople as a leper until a kind wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Daily (Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer), invite him in, Arthur appreciates the gesture even as he is unable to miss the unbearable grief they're still going through over the death of their only son. Midway through his trip, Arthur finally makes the decision to stay put and work through the night. As spooky as the surroundings are during the day, he has no idea what's about to go bump after dark.
A mood piece with style and heart (perhaps too much heart), "The Woman in Black" is elegantly written by Jane Goldman (2011's "X-Men: First Class
") and the cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones (2004's "Envy
") richly atmospheric. Produced by the new Hammer Films production company and shot primarily at the classic Pinewood Studios, the film looks and feels like every inch the part of a 1960s or '70s supernatural thriller. It might be a tad scarier than most of those, though, with director James Watkins taking expert advantage of putting his audience through the wringer of what reminds of a nightmarish funhouse carnival ride. Enigmatic sound effects spaced through eerie silences lead to sock-'em jolts and a devilish use of props, from a creaky rocking chair to a nursery filled with old wind-up toys that could give anyone a case of the willies. It's all very well set-up as the woman of the title lurks around shadowy corners and in obscured doorways, biding her time and building up anger over how she was wronged in life.
Now that he's graduated from Hogwarts once and for all, 22-year-old Daniel Radcliffe (2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
") looks to be doing a better job than expected of moving forward to other roles and opportunities. Already a two-time Broadway performer, Radcliffe now takes on his first grown-up film turn without any threatened signs of awkwardness. Radcliffe, especially intense with a bristly face and dark brows, commands the frame while remaining wholly sympathetic (and it's a good thing, too, since he often is playing scenes by himself). Ciarán Hinds (2010's "The Eclipse
") lends strong support as Mr. Daily, a friendly companion whose goodness, for once, isn't a ruse for more malevolent intentions. As for the woman in black herself, Liz White essays one of the more memorably freaky screen villainesses since Samara in 2002's admittedly very similar "The Ring
"The Woman in Black" is set up as a mystery on top of being a horror tale, but even for people not familiar with the novel its supposed twists will come off as foregone conclusions. That hardly matters in the long run since the film is more an emotional experience than an intellectual or plot-based one, but it's worth mentioning. To that end, there is at least one minor leap in logic that must be gotten over (involving the corpse of the woman in black's drowned son), and the last scene is too treacly for its own good, like something out of 1993's macabre Disney feature "Hocus Pocus
." Nevertheless, if the core function of a horror picture is to frighten and leave on edge, "The Woman in Black" hits the bull's-eye for the duration of its running time. Uncommonly smart not only in what it does, but how it does it, this bleak cinematic fable cuts to the cathartic quick.