When it’s on: Saturday, 30 May (9.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
Fans of classic British horror – like me – must have raised a cheer when Hammer Films was sold to a consortium in 2007 with the promise that $50 million was going to be invested in new productions. While this ensured that much of the company’s vast back catalogue was due to be rereleased, the big draw was the upcoming output, and the relative sigh when this turned out to be largely underwhelming. Let Me In was good, but it was an English language remake of the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, with the original secure in its superiority. The Northern Irish based Wake Wood suffered from a very limited release (it’s far from terrible, though), and worse came with The Resident, a thriller featuring a fan-pleasing cameo from Christopher Lee that seemed a tired retread of a theme that had been done before, and better. And the less said about Beyond the Rave then the happier we’ll all be.
A bit like old Hammer, the revitalised studio was churning out a very mixed bag, but then came The Woman in Black and all that latent promise seemed to blossom. Fortunate to recruit one of the best known young faces in the acting world, Daniel Radcliffe, as its star, and in James Watkins having a director who in Eden Lake had made one of the more tense and visceral thrillers in recent years, it promised much, not least in its choice of much loved source material. The novella, The Woman in Black, feels like a chiller from another era, as though a long lost manuscript by Henry James had been discovered, though in reality it was a Susan Hill book that was first published in 1983. Hill set out to write a full length ghost story in the classic style, and indeed it reads like a great slice of Gothic Victoriana, stuffed with florid prose. But it also sets a gloomy, desolate atmosphere, which worked really well, and it went on to become not only a bestseller but a set text on GCSE and A-Level Literature curricula. The stage play, which was another enormous success followed, assiduously adapting the text with its play-within-a-play structure and telling the entire story using just two actors (plus a woman in black).
Arguably, the film follows the play as closely as it does the book, copying many of the former’s jump scares as well as replicating the creeping sense of dread about which Hill wrote. Radcliffe, who appears in every scene, plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who is sent by his firm to North Yorkshire in order to arrange the sale of Eel Marsh House following the death of its owner. Kipps is in trouble. He’s failing at work and his boss (Roger Allam) makes it clear that the prosecution of his task is to be seen as a last chance. Four years before, Kipps’s wife died in childbirth, something that still haunts him, with even the presence of his young son doing little to soften the blow. Arriving in the little town, he finds himself in a largely hostile environment, one where many children have perished, inexplicably at their own hands, and no one taking kindly to the arrival of this outsider. His only friend here is Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), who refuses to believe the local superstitions that cite a mysterious woman in black as being responsible for all the deaths. Kipps goes to Eel Marsh House, a crumbling mansion that is built on a spit of land, the road to which is regularly submerged by the sea. He gets to work, realising that the documents he has to trawl through are innumerable, but of more concern is the house itself, with its faded grandeur, dark corners, creaking floorboards and the possibility of ethereal presences haunting its corridors.
More than Radcliffe, Eel Marsh is the star of the show. It’s the classic haunted house, filled with dusty memories and unhappy secrets, solemn children’s playrooms decorated with toys and dolls that take on sinister lives of their own thanks to the clever, shadowy way they’re shot. The gloomy atmosphere is instant, the best scenes when Marco Beltrami’s score gives way to creeping silence, the creak as Kipps moves in his chair, the sounds off-camera of someone/thing else in there with him. It’s the sort of place built for Janet Fielding, Derek Acorah and the Most Haunted gang to be running around in the middle of the night, lit by night cameras and jolted by random noises.
As for the main star, the film lives or dies depending on your acceptance of him as a mature, grown-up character. Is he credible as a young father, or has he not yet shaken off the Harry Potter robes? I think he acquits himself superbly, convincing as a man haunted by his own tragedy and determined to deal with the one unfolding before him as the revelations he discovers at Eel Marsh compel him to take positive action. The best part of his performance is the degree of stillness he manifests, all that grief bottled up inside and yet clear on his face, particularly in the scenes where he imagines he sees his wife.
If The Woman in Black strikes any false notes, it’s in the number of jump scares it goes for. There’s a sense, especially when Kipps tramps around Eel Marsh, chasing – or being chased by – sounds, of Watkins throwing everything at the screen in the hope something will stick, for example the moment he’s jolted by the cawing of a crow that’s entered one of the rooms, and it all feels a bit unnecessary. The atmosphere is palpable and should have been allowed to carry the first half, building an air of unease and oncoming dread, which certainly takes place when the gloomy house turns the dial to eleven in its terrorising of the lawyer.
All the same, it’s a very effective frightener, a cut above the films being put out by the likes of James Wan and many times worthier than those relying on gore instead of a careful development of suspense. Its commercial success made the sequel, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, an inevitability, which I went to see on New Year’s Day. Sadly, whilst the atmosphere from the original remained, the powerful central performance was missing and the script ran out of steam and fresh ideas long before the finish. The future for Hammer remains uncertain.
The Woman in Black: ****