Sometimes I wonder how I’d react if I saw a ghost. Mind you, I don’t plan on seeing one any time soon. It’s just that characters in movies always seem to approach a paranormal encounter with curiosity. When they hear a strange noise or see a shadowy figure standing in the hall, they walk towards it with intent to decipher whatever mystery is behind the apparition’s presence rather than book it the hell out of there. Their intense interest is always a bit hard to swallow—I’d be willing to bet the majority of people would choose the latter option over the former—but The Woman in Black takes that disbelief to a whole new level. If the interest of characters in other movies is a bit hard to swallow, watching The Woman in Black is like having a giant jawbreaker stuck in your throat. There’s nothing in particular keeping the protagonist of the film in the old, decrepit haunted house, just some paperwork he could easily pack up and take with him, but he stays there nonetheless and even dares to return after leaving. There are some chills to be had in The Woman in Black, enough that I have no problem recommending it, but its contrivances and liberal borrowing from the book of horror movie clichés will undoubtedly keep it from producing too many nightmares.
The film stars Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who is sent off to a remote village in London to settle the legal affairs of a recently deceased woman. However, when he arrives, he learns the legend of the Woman in Black, a vengeful spirit who takes the life of a child whenever she is seen in retaliation for the death of her own son years ago. Odd things begin to happen, turning skeptics into believers, and Arthur decides it’s his duty to stop her from striking again.
Like many ghost movies, The Woman in Black hasn’t an original thought in its head. If you’ve seen a good amount of similar films, you’ve seen this one. There’s fog, creepy looking dolls, ghostly reflections, gothic architecture, eerie paintings, cobwebs, creaky floorboards, random birds flying out of nowhere, ominous footsteps from the upstairs hallway and, of course, jittery townspeople who know more than they are letting on. And that’s only the beginning of a list that would undoubtedly bleed over into multiple pages if someone were to take up the daunting task of tallying them off. However, The Woman in Black uses them well. It combines them to an effective degree and the early moments, where it’s more about quick glimpses and what you don’t see rather than what you do, will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
Those early moments remind very much of classic chillers like 1961’s The Innocents or the George C. Scott film, The Changeling. It’s minimalism at its finest, using very little to achieve a maximum effect. Unfortunately, The Woman in Black is one of those movies that gets progressively worse as it goes on. It gets far too showy for a picture that initially relied so heavily on the unseen. Those quick, far off glimpses eventually turn into detailed, close-up stares and though the design of the apparition is top notch and frightening, you can never shake the feeling that the film lost faith in itself and decided to amp up the spectacle in fear of losing its audience.
A feeling of disappointment lingers on after the credits roll, but those early images will be stuck in your head for days, and that’s precisely why The Woman in Black is worth seeing. It doesn’t live up to its full potential and it certainly doesn’t redefine the genre, but it will make you glance over your shoulder the next time you’re walking down the hallway and, as far as horror movies go at least, that’s an impressive accomplishment.
The Woman in Black receives 3/5