The Woman in Black is a pleasing throwback to good old-fashioned ghost stories, and I’m pleased to say that it largely works. It’s a film that knows its OK to shy away from gore effects and jump scares, and spends a lot of time building up atmosphere and dread. The overall result is an atmospheric experience with an increasing build-up of dread and tension, and as the credits roll, you’re happy to have spent your time having your spine tingled.
The film follows Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a widower who is still grieving the loss of his wife four years earlier. Times are hard for Kipps, and the law firm he works for have made it clear that unless he pulls in some damn-good work, he’s out of a job, made further problematic by the fact that he has a four-year-old son.
His firm sends him out to a remote village to settle the affairs of the late Alice Drablow, a reclusive widow who lived in an enormous and isolated mansion – access to the house is only possible over a causeway that gets cut off from the mainland by the daily tides.
On arriving in the village, Kipps finds the locals to be hostile and wary, and in a large rush to get him home almost immediately. The local bartender tells him the room his office booked for him is unavailable as they’re “packed to the rafters” despite having only one or two patrons; the local solicitor hands him a bundle of papers to take back to London – a lot less than the “great deal” of paperwork Kipps was told he’d find at the house. His only relief from the steeped-misery of the village comes in the form of Samuel Daily (Ciarán Hinds), the wealthiest man in the village whom he befriends on the train.
As Kipps pokes around the Drablow estate, a series of increasingly creepy events take place – from the sounds of footsteps in the rooms above him, to the occasional glimpse of a woman in the grounds of the house – dressed entirely in black. And once Kipps has seen this woman, children in the village start dying…
For the most part, this is a film that refreshingly assumes its audience has an attention span capable of juggling a main plot and a significant amount of back-story. As in all mysteries, the circumstances leading up to the creepy happenings have to be explained, and the film takes its time revealing key elements to what’s happening – most viewers will probably figure out the story of the woman in black early on, but it doesn’t detract from the experience.
The films spends a good portion of time building up the hostile atmosphere of the village, and I was immediately reminded of the villagers in the (original) Wicker Man, or the bar patrons in An American Werewolf in London and how creepy it is to have a band of people who are all clearly harbouring a secret, but not letting the protagonist in on it. I appreciate films that take the time to establish atmosphere, rather than rushing head-on into an onslaught of scares and thrills.
The film also relies on the “nothing is scarier” trope, and to great effect – there are a few jump scares from time to time, but for the most part they largely fall flat in comparison with the ominous tingles of seeing a door opened when it was previously locked shut, or the sounds of footsteps in an otherwise empty house. Oh, and that moment at the end of the trailers where Kipps looks out of a window and the face appears over his shoulder? Yeah, that’s in the movie, but it’s hardly the film’s money shot, so they haven’t put the best bits in the trailer
I also particularly liked the attention paid to small details, such as a very clever shot where Kipps is walking around a room full of creepy dolls. They’re creepy enough the first time we see them, but we see them again later in the film, as Kipps walks around a dark room holding a candle and the reflection of the flame in the doll’s eyes gives the uncanny impression that they’re watching him move.
Above all else, it’s a largely bloodless movie – a fair risk to take in a modern world of gore-filled horror films that serve to show off the special effects of how blood can be launched around the scene. For the record, I have no problem with gore when its used effectively, but it is quite remarkable to have a horror film these days that doesn’t need to use bloody violence to get its chills across.
And the other risk the film takes – all its onscreen deaths are those of children – young children. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the titular black-clad woman appears to these youngsters and causes them to kill themselves in the most immediate fashion, as this is what a large bulk of the story centres on. But it’s pretty bold to show small kids dying on screen, and I’m pleased to say that they’re all done within the context of the story – the film doesn’t just use children to add a bit of extra horror to the proceedings for the sake of it.
Also, in technical terms, the film is beautifully shot in maudlin hues, and the sound design is pretty impeccable; it knows very well that old creepy houses are old because of how much space there is inside them, and the sound design more than adequately creates that feeling.
And I won’t spoil it for you, but the opening scene before the title card is just a brilliant and evocative scene that perfectly establishes the mood of the film to follow.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK:
Firstly, while its good that the film spends a fair bit of time building up the dread and the atmosphere, its ending is a bit too rushed to provide an adequate payoff for the build-up. The characters all of a sudden seem to have a set-course-of-action and know what needs to be done when ten minutes earlier they were trapped in the mystery. And in the climax of the film, there’s a scene where Daily gets locked in a room by the ghost of his son and looks outside to see other ghost children watching him menacingly – but the scene goes nowhere and eventually the door unlocks and he walks out unscathed – I think perhaps this is an alternate version of a different scene.
Also, a small subplot of the film has Sam Daily rubbishing the villagers’ superstitions regarding the woman in black and the children dying; the laws of storytelling dictate that he must either become convinced that the supernatural events are indeed supernatural, or must fall victim to them as a result of his obstinacy – he does indeed become convinced that the events are real, but it all happens a bit too quickly and without much attention paid to his new revelation – it ends up coming off as little more than perfunctory to the plot.
There’s another subplot involving Daily’s wife Elizabeth. The two of them lost their son when he was young, and she’s still very much in mourning. While her character does manage to evoke a small amount of pathos, the film is a bit too obvious with it, and it actually misfires. When Daily invites Kipps over for dinner on his second night in the village, Elizabeth demands that “the twins” be allowed to dine with them. The twins are her two dogs, and while it’s a scene that’s meant to make you sad at how much grief she’s poured into treating these dogs like her son, all I could think of was “look at their cute little outfit! Oooh, they have cute little highchairs!” It’s followed up on later when we see her putting one of the dogs to sleep in a baby’s cradle and rocking it to sleep – that was much more effective at showing her grief, and I can’t help feel that introducing the dogs earlier as genuine pets and then having this scene would’ve been a much more solid showing of her character.
The few jump-scares in the film are bit too obvious too (except one which I’ll admit took me by surprise) – but these days, we know that if a character is lost in a thick fog, someone will turn up right behind them; if they’re in a dark room and struggling to light a match, then something will show up once its lit.
But perhaps the biggest misstep of the film – and it’s the only one that severely threatens the consistency of the story – is a brief moment when Elizabeth becomes possessed by all the children who have killed themselves at the woman in black’s behest. While it is established earlier that she’s prone to the influences of the spiritual world, the scene only covers things we’ve already been shown, and it comes off like a moment of letting the dumber members of the audience know what’s been going on all this time. It’s certainly not enough to damage the good work of the movie, but it is enough to make you lose focus for a moment and think, “this scene shouldn’t be here.”
It’s a really enjoyable, solidly spooky ghost story that’s well worth a look. It has its flaws but they’re not enough to ruin an otherwise very decent film.