The Woman in Black (2012)

Posted: February 4, 2012 in 4 stars, Reviews, The Woman in Black
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Dear Daniel Radcliffe,

I apologize for saying that you were such an atrociously wooden actor that you could have been swapped out for your polygon figure from the Harry Potter video games for three movies on end before anyone noticed.  Clearly that was a bias of mine formed back when you were ten years old and still had Chris Columbus telling you to act with your eyeballs.  Now that you have discovered that there are more facial expressions in an actor’s toolkit than bug-eyed-and-vaguely-bored and squinch-faced-and-vaguely-bored, you do pretty damn well.

I look forward to seeing you in more films.  Please do not dress in Victorian garb.  You are disturbingly attractive in it, and the cognitive dissonance is a bit more than I can handle.

Sincerely,

Larissa.

It’s a shame that the newly-resurrected Hammer didn’t come out of the starting gate with The Woman in Black, instead of leading with the direct-to-video Wake Wood  and the universally unloved The Resident.  That would have smashed off the coffin lid with a bang.  Woman in Black is a throwback to the gorgeous foggy creepiness of the best of the Hammer films, a claustrophobic gothic thriller that doesn’t rely on gore but on seriously disturbing imagery to keep the audience’s attention.  If it has a fault, it’s the ill-judged tendency to build up suspense with care, skill, and elegance, and then bring it crashing down with a cheap jump scare; but that’s easily forgiven in the sheer wonderfulness of seeing a good old-fashioned haunted-house story play out this beautifully on the screen.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a struggling attorney unable to get past his wife’s death in childbirth four years before.  He’s sent out to the creepy Drablow house in the middle of a marsh to collect the widow Drablow’s papers after her death.  (There are a million of them.  I wanted to sneeze just looking at the huge stacks of parchment.)  The house is creepy, the townspeople are terrified, and after Kipps sees a mysterious woman in black in the graveyard outside the mansion, children in the village start dying in horrific ways.

The last movie I watched that largely consisted of someone wandering around a creepy house was House of the Devil, a movie that bored me so badly that I still resent the fact that it exists.  The Woman in Black didn’t bore me for a minute; partly because this house genuinely was one of the creepiest houses ever committed to celluloid, and partly because Radcliffe has against all reason managed to grow into a charismatic and compelling, if travel-sized, screen presence.  The cinematography is deft and in places astonishing to watch – this is probably the only movie I’ve ever seen that manages to make handwriting terrifying.  It’s definitely a blu-ray buy, both for the quality of the performances and the sheer visual spectacle of it.

If you’re a horror buff, though, there’s one outstanding question: how well does it hold up to the original?  Well… that depends on what you thought the original’s strong points were.  I liked the original, but while it had a couple of seriously disturbing moments (which the 2012 movie has the good sense to allude to but not try to replicate), I didn’t think it was as scary as it’s usually built up to be.  I like Radcliffe’s Arthur better than the original’s – he’s more three-dimensional and less passive.  I can’t decide which version’s woman in black I like better.  The new one definitely has more going on and a faster pace, which may strike you as pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences or may strike you as better at keeping the audience wrapped up in the movie every step of the way.  I liked the original; I was going to say I like the remake better, but I like them for such different reasons that it sort of seems like comparing apples and oranges.  The only thing to do is to buy both of them, stock up on the popcorn, and spend a long winter evening comparing and contrasting.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  If you love gothic movies, haunted-house movies, or both, The Woman in Black is a must-see.

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