Film Review | The Woman in Black

More of an autumn treat than a summer hit, The Woman in Black has scares aplenty, but this Victorian pastiche comes with an underwhelming plot.

Potter no more: Daniel Radcliffe plays the glum-and-glummer Arthur Kipps in this gothic chiller.
Potter no more: Daniel Radcliffe plays the glum-and-glummer Arthur Kipps in this gothic chiller.

There is a certain comfort in doing things by the numbers. Why worry about innovation and originality when the current cultural climate practically begs you to adapt, re-make and tread on old ground at every turn?

The crew behind The Woman in Black - the first big-screen version of Susan Hill's otherwise oft-adapted 1983 Gothic chiller novel - appear to be operating under just such a creative program.

Employing Daniel Radcliffe - late of that minor franchise you may have caught wind of, Harry Potter - as the lead, director James Watkins (Eden Lake) is given the mammoth task of creating something unique out of material that has enjoyed a successful shelf, stage, and televisual life pretty much since it was first published.

The Woman in Black, adapted for the stage in 1987, is still enjoying a successful run at London's West End, while it also boasts a solid 1989 TV film made by the UK's Granada Television.

Under the auspices of the illustrious - and recently resuscitated - British film house of horrors Hammer Studios, Watkins and co. present us with a sleek cut of spine-chilling suspense... whose plot, sadly, never quite manages to rise above its status as a glorified scary theme park ride.

As expected, our world-famous lead - now bestubbled for 'mature effect' - is in nearly every shot, and when we first see Radcliffe, mournful in his Edwardian regalia and readying himself to depart from his recently-downsized family (he is a widower), he is on his way to meet the titular villainess... though of course, he does not know this yet.

For Radcliffe is Arthur Kipps, a solicitor charged with overseeing a client's estate following her death. The property, known as Eel Marsh House, is viewed with superstitious terror by the locals, who not only discourage Kipps from visiting the location, but begin to view him with genuine suspicion when he persists on completing his job.

Kipps befriends Sam Daly (Ciaran Hinds), a landowner immune to the supernatural aura that appears to have transfixed the rest of the island.

But after a series of sudden infant deaths, seemingly related to Kipps's arrival, strike the town, both Kipps and Daly's certainties about the world around them begin to crumble... and Kipps may not have enough time to suss out the truth before his own son - en route to visit him - falls pray to the dreaded 'woman in black'...

You can't really fault the production for not being effective on the 'scare' front. Darkened Victorian manors are creepy enough by themselves, so it doesn't take much for Watkins and his cinematographic team to ratched up the chill factor to eleven.

But though Kipps's creeping though Eel Marsh House is punctuated by a steady barrage of jolting scares - various household props are employed, most memorable of which is a particularly 'springy' armchair - it's all quite... well... expected.

And if I may, I'd say that it's expected for all this to be expected.

We are, after all, in the realm of ultimate pastiche: this is a film adapted from a novel which in turn borrows from the furniture of a bygone era to create a world that feels creepy but also underwhelmingly familiar. 

There is some effort, on screenwriter Jane Goldman's part, to inject psychological anguish to go along with all the cosmetic terror.

Radcliffe just about manages to pull off a more mournful Kipps than the one found in Hill's novel - weighed down by his wife's death, this new job just feels like a step closer to the underworld.

But although there is sustained dread throughout, a mid-plot turn - no spoilers - isn't allowed to flourish.

Instead, the film is left to plateau as little more than a suspenseful haunted house chiller.

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