The new adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman in Black is significant for three reasons. It’s the first time Hill’s tale has been adapted for the silver screen; it marks Daniel Radcliffe’s first major project after the end of Harry Potter; and it’s the first Hammer movie made in England since their demise in 1979 (The Lady Vanishes). The book spawned a radio series and a creepy, TV adaptation in 1989, but more significantly, the long running West End stage play (a truly petrifying experience).
Whereas Hill’s chilling novella is akin to a cold breath down the back of the reader’s neck, the film skews closer to the jolting, ghost-train scares of the play -after all, one shouldn’t expect subtlety from Hammer, in its newly revived status or otherwise. However, in comparison with the recent glut of stupid gore-porn movies, director James Watkins’ attempts to envelop the audience in a spooky yarn are entirely admirable, and the emphasis on atmosphere as opposed to blood means it carries an old-fashioned charm.
Screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass) does make one major deviation from both the play and the original tale, dispensing with the story’s flashback structure that explicitly connects it to the traditions of Victorian Gothic horror. In Hill’s original narrative, the narrator attempts to exorcise his demons by recounting the story of the woman in black on paper, and it builds to a grim, horrifying climax. By contrast, Goldman’s take on the afterlife is tinged with optimism, even sentimentality.
At the start of the film, Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps, a solicitor, loses his wife in childbirth. Several years later, he is tasked with sorting the estate of a deceased woman in the north of England -should he not do it, his family will be out on the street (therefore offering a pragmatic explanation as to why he endures the eventual supernatural terror). On his arrival in Crythin Gifford (a village seemingly populated by outcasts from An American Werewolf in London), he discovers the area has been plagued by several bizarre child deaths -could these be connected to the mysterious woman in black he glimpses across the causeway at Eel Marsh House?
First things first -understated it ain’t. Hammer Productions may only have been revived in 2007 but there’s plenty to connect the movie to their past classics. Never mind the amusing ‘by gum, we’re Northern’ stereotyping of the villagers; rarely a moment goes by without a glimpse of billowing, Ingrid Pitt style robes or a cawing crow. It’s all somewhat overwrought and rather silly, bearing little resemblance to Hill’s story, but there’s no denying it’s a triumph of atmosphere, not least when Radcliffe relocates to the house itself -a masterclass in cobwebbed production design from Kave Quinn.
Radcliffe for his part is perfectly fine and stoic. His primary function is to react, and although the actor looks convincingly terrified as he prowls the darkened corridors of Eel Marsh House, he’s mainly there to prop up the movie, rather than imbue it with a nuanced performance. Nevertheless, Goldman’s script does expand on Hill’s original ideas as Radcliffe’s character (and those around him) seeks a kind of spiritual redemption, particularly in the bittersweet conclusion. The film also benefits from the gravitas of supporting players Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, playing a grieving couple lamenting the loss of their son, and whose quest for solace adds further layers of melancholy to the story. Don’t read too much into it though: McTeer’s character is bonkers and prone to automatic writing -well, it wouldn’t be Hammer otherwise, would it?
The real star of the movie is Watkins himself, beautifully conjuring up a spectral, mist-laden atmosphere frequently sprinkled with jumpy shocks. On its own terms, the film is an uneven mixture of old-fashioned restraint and shrieking silliness, but although it’s a movie of visceral, atmospheric pleasures, there’s no denying the skill with which it’s made. At long last, the classic ghost story is making a comeback -frankly we need 10 of these for every one film in which someone is strung up by their eyeballs and tortured.