You know, sometimes it’s best not to mess around with a winning formula. The Woman In Black, a new film based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, is so shamelessly respectful and observing of all the well-worn conventions of the haunted house story that it could have been scripted by The League Of Gentlemen, but is also bizarrely refreshing in its refusal to tack on any postmodern or subversive twists. This is a film that really should have been released around Halloween, when it would have provided a good traditional alternative to the definitely more cerebral and introspective The Awakening.
The Woman In Black is produced by the venerable and recently re-activated Hammer Films, whose reputation was made back in the 1950s by lurid and unabashedly straightforward adaptations of stock horror properties like Dracula and Frankenstein, and pleasingly there’s precious little messing around with the set-up here: young lawyer Arthur Kipps is sent to a remote Northern community in order to negotiate the sale of a particularly forbidding and spooky house, which has previously been the scene of a number of tragedies and premature deaths. On arrival, Kipps finds the citizens of the town far from welcoming, and it is only through bribery and the assistance of an enlightened local land-owner that he’s able to even reach the house, which is dramatically situated on an island only reachable at low tide – needless to say, his explorations of the house and its grounds uncover more than just the paperwork he needs to complete his assignment.
Part of the pleasure of the piece is watching the film-makers steadily working through the checklist that starts with the steam train journey and the suspicious locals and turns into a veritable inventory once we get into the interior of the house: cobwebs, chandeliers, stuffed animals, music boxes that spring into life unexpectedly, creepy glassy-eyed dolls and rocking chairs. Thankfully this is all skilfully assembled and paced, and the look of the film is terrific (sort of autumnal and glossy at the same time) so it’s easy to just go with it, and the long wordless section in which Kipps gets progressively more freaked out in the dark house shows really pretty masterful handling of what could easily have been hackneyed effects like subliminal shots of faces at windows and sudden outbreaks of rattling and creaking noises. Plotwise, the cat gets let out of the bag surprisingly early, but the film doesn’t seem to have any problems maintaining one’s interest to the end. Daniel Radcliffe puts in a surprisingly convincing, and even nuanced, performance in his first post-Harry Potter outing, although he does look a bit young to have a four year old son, with the rest of the cast having fun with some fairly stock roles – Janet McTeer in particular seems to positively relish her bereaved mother freakouts.
So, this film is in a lot of ways more like a theme park ride than a piece of drama, but that’s OK, as it’s an effective one that fulfils its mission commendably, and it’s got an admirably brisk running time of just 95 minutes too. And it makes a nice change from watching bloody vampires again.