The Woman In Black
Director: James Watkins
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer
Review by Brian M. Sammons
This was a movie that I really wanted to like, but just couldn’t do so when it was all said and done. Now I’m a big fan of haunted house films and truly creepy ghost stories are some of favorite fright flicks of all time. Also the trailers for this movie made it look like it was going to be a very traditional spooky tale with none of the overused trappings and clichés that fill modern horror flicks and I’m all for that. Then I watched it and my optimism went down in flames. So if you have the same high hopes for this movie that I did, let me forewarn you about some of this film’s foibles and failings and perhaps prepare you for the disappointment that lays waiting for you in the dark halls of this haunted house.
Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame plays a lawyer named Arthur living in early 1900s England who is still in the dumps from losing his wife during the birth of his son. He is sent to a very out of the way village to sell the crumbling estate of a deceased eccentric woman. Naturally this place has a dark history, this is a haunted house story after all, and as soon as Arthur arrives in town all the townsfolk start giving him the stink eye and all but shouting at him to run the hell away. Oblivious to a fault, the young, grieving lawyer ignores all the hints and goes out to the house to gather the paperwork needed to sell the place. Once there he spies the titular woman and that’s bad, because every time someone sees the woman in black, a child in the nearby town dies horribly.
This brought up a nagging question for me as to why people with children would still live in this cursed town. It’s not like they don’t believe in such superstitious nonsense. No, they all completely believe in the ghost lady and that she kills children, thus all the cold shoulders they gave to the young lawyer. So, why do parents of children still live there? Do they not love their kids? I mean if the parents in the Nightmare On Elm Street films believed that living in Springwood was a death sentence for their kids, I’m pretty sure they would move. But nope, not these people. Must be that vaunted British stiff upper lip thing taken to an extreme.
That bit of “huh, really?” aside, I must give credit where credit is due and say that this movie really excels at the location, the isolation, the set dressing and props, and the overall look of everything. The haunted house of the lady ghost is simply amazing looking and is set on a little hill of land in the middle of a saltmarsh that gets cutoff from the village every night when the tide rises, effectively making it an island. I absolutely loved that idea. In haunted house movies, one of the big questions the audience must overlook when trying to enjoy such movies is the question of why don’t people in the spooky place just get out and leave. This movie neatly answers that question by making it impossible to do so once the nighttime tides roll in. That’s so damn cool. Further, just the look of the place with its overgrown grounds, the family graveyard out back, the nursery full of eerie windup toys, all the dusty paintings and furnishings, and the strange grave marker oddly set out in the marsh, all added up to one hell of a moody, atmospheric, and genuinely creepy setting. For looks alone, this movie gets very high marks.
Then the filmmakers try to bring on the frights and that’s when this film jumped right into the crapper.
First and foremost, this movie loves jump scares. You know, there’s a scene where everything is all quiet and still and then BOO! something suddenly appears on screen accompanied with a loud noise or a blaring musical sting. Now jump scares are a valid and effective tool for someone to use when making horror movies. Unfortunately here they were the only such tool ever used. That’s it, that’s all this movie has going for it when it comes to trying to be scary. All the wonderful atmosphere and setting in this movie is all for naught as time and again this flick just goes for the BOO! And good grief does this movie overdue the jump scares. They seem to happen every ten minutes without fail. I stopped counting them after the seventh one and there were still many more than that. This has the end result of completely killing any shock they might have produced when used that often. It got to the point that as soon as the movie ever got quite, I began a countdown from five and more often than not I could predict the BOO! right to the second.
As if all the jump scares this film bludgeoned its audience with weren’t tiring enough, it relies on poorly implemented CGI from time to time needlessly. Now I’m generally not a fan of computer images in film unless there is no other way to show something truly amazing. The dinosaurs of Jurrasic Park or the amazing space battles in the Star Wars films are examples of this. A gothic ghost story is NOT. And yet time and time again the dread specter of noticeably bad CGI rears its ugly head here for no good reason. Why? Incredibly effective and horrifying ghost stories have been made since the beginning of cinema history without the “aid” of CGI, but God forbid any modern movie maker not rely on that dull, splintered, and far too overused crutch because they just can’t imagine making a movie now days without loading it up with graphics right out of the PlayStation 3. Now to be fair, this movie doesn’t actually overdo it with the CGI, but when it does use it, it looks pretty damn bad. Again I must ask, why? There’s nothing done here by the computer wiz kids that a more talented and capable movie maker couldn’t do with practical effects. It truly saddens me so see movies take the lazy, cheap, and quick way to do things rather than putting in the time, care, and effort to truly make something worthwhile.
Despite my rather disappointed feelings towards this movie, the Blu-ray from Sony has a few pretty good extras. No, not many, but enough to warrant some kudos. There’s an audio commentary track with director James Watkins and the screenwriter, Jane Goldman. There is a behind the scenes featurette with the laughably inaccurate title of “Inside the Perfect Thriller.” Come on, perfect thriller? Sorry, not even close. Finally there is an in depth look at Daniel Radcliffe making the jump from Harry Potter to something less specifically aimed at the kiddies. Although, I find that a bit of a laugh, as The Woman In Black was only rated PG-13 so the Potter kids can continue to follow their hero right into this movie. I’m sure that is NOT a coincidence.
The Woman In Black is not a horrible movie but it does feel like a large missed opportunity. It could have been better, it should have been better, but sadly it was made lazily by people who just don’t seem to get what really makes a movie scary. Other than the countless BOO! moments, that is. If you have kids who loved the Harry Potter movies, then you might want to get this for them. It’s not really that frightening, has no nudity or profanity, so for teens and younger I guess this might be an OK movie. However if you’re not a Potterphile and actually want to experience something scary in your horror movie, give this one a pass. There’s not a whole lot here to recommend, other than a great looking house set on a cool island. That’s it.