Monday, February 6, 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK - Hammer Horror Returns


- The Woman In Black is a cool, creepy little horror movie. It showed me that Daniel Radcliffe is going to be very viable as an actor in his post-Harry Potter career. And it also served as a nice debut film for the reborn Hammer films. After a long hiatus following a legendary run of horror flicks back in the 60's and 70's, Hammer is back, and that in and of itself is good to see. That said, this film also feels like a somewhat-awkward compromise between the old-school and the modern. This is a movie that could have made a strong impression on the basis of its solid cast, creepy atmosphere, and classic ghost-story plotline. Instead, the film doesn't seem confident that those elements are enough to win over an audience in 2012. So what we get is a film that sort of undermines its own strengths by adding numerous jump-scares to the mix, leaving us with a movie that at times feels less like classic gothic horror, and more like a version of Paranormal Activity set 100 years in the past.

In The Woman In Black, Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who travels to a remote village to settle the affairs of a long-abandoned house, so that it can finally be put back on the market. As it turns out, the locals know all too well that not only should no one live in the house, but no one should even visit or go near. Why? Because it's haunted by a vengeful ghost - the specter of its former owner. To give any more detail would be saying too much, suffice it to say that it soon becomes clear just *why* this ghost is haunting the town, and why it seems to do bad things to children in particular. To that end though, the ghost's M.O. is a particularly chilling one for Kipps. He's a widower who's now the sole caretaker of his young son (his wife died in childbirth), and so he's got a very personal stake in the action.

Radcliffe does a nice job here. At first, it's a little jarring to see the actor best known for playing a boy wizard as a widowed father. But, Radcliffe pulls it off, bringing a confident maturity to the part, and doing a nice job of conveying the character's escalating sense of urgency and dread. At first, Kipps is almost comically unfazed by all the weirdness going on around him - but eventually, he understandably becomes desperate to rid himself and the town of the ghost that plagues them. Seriously, one can't underestimate how good Radcliffe has become at playing a character who makes the fantastical seem believable. By this point, he's old hat at talking about ghosts and magic and curses without sounding silly, and that is something that really comes in handy with The Woman In Black. The movie also wisely surrounds Radcliffe with a number of talented character actors who fill out the supporting cast, and lend a lot of local color to the dank, mist-filled village.

Now, where I take issue with the film is the way in which it tries to get a lot of its scares. Rather than going for the kind of memorable scenes that will stick with you long after the movie's over, the film is riddled with "jump scares" - loud noises, quick cuts, and other tricks to get you to jump out of your seat. People quickly pop into the frame, the camera randomly cuts to creepy dolls and other such things in the ghost house, and musical cues slash and soar with the sole purpose of getting you to gasp. On one hand, there's no denying that the movie does an effective job of eliciting scares. The audience I saw the film with was on the edge of their seats - and so was I. But as the movie went on, I began getting a bit frustrated that so many of the scares seemed to come from the Paranormal Activity playbook - a quickly-glimpsed figure at the edge of the screen, objects moving by themselves, etc. But the problem with these sorts of moments is that everything is super quick - it makes it so that it's really hard to have truly memorable visuals or prolonged scenes of ghostly shenanigans. And in a movie like this - a film with lush, gothic art design and a classic, old-school haunted mansion at the center of the plot - it seems like there is potential for a lot more than just quick shocks. Occasionally, the jump-scares do build to a satisfying degree, recreating the feeling of actually being in a haunted house amusement park ride. The extended scene in which Radcliffe spends a night at the haunted manor is pretty deviously clever in the way it just doesn't let up, throwing one scare at you after another. At the same time, that sort of thing seems to lend itself to a different kind of horror movie - because the other half of The Woman In Black is all about gloomy atmosphere, creeping dread, and classic gothic horror. It's that odd juxtaposition of styles that makes this feel more like a somewhat confused horror movie mash-up and less like a singular vision.

And that same sense of dueling tones is especially evident in the film's already-controversial ending. I won't go into any of the details, except to say that I thought the movie had a pretty good final act that was then almost utterly decimated by a really lame ending. It's an ending that goes from delightfully grim to ridiculously cheesy in a matter of minutes, and it felt like a cop-out and a tonal clash to what had come before. In short - it didn't feel like a proper ending to a ghost story.

All in all though, The Woman In Black is plenty entertaining and a good amount of fun. It's a solid way to kick off this new chapter in the life of Hammer horror, and it's a nice little showcase for Radcliffe as an all-grown-up film star. But, where the movie could have been something really special, it instead seems to lack confidence in its own story. Rather than being a self-assured revival of real gothic horror, the movie takes the familiar gothic setting and story tropes and uses them to frame a somewhat ADD, amusement-park-style funhouse horror movie. If anything, it made me dream of what that Guillermo del Toro Haunted Mansion movie might end up being like.

My Grade: B

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