The recent revival of the Hammer Films brand has given viewers a sexually-charged peeping tom thriller (The Resident), a remake of a darkly romantic vampire film (Let Me In), and a disturbing tale of a child’s death and rebirth (Wake Wood), but, perhaps indicative of the times, the studio had yet to return to the ‘gore and gaslight’ brand of cinema for which they were renowned. That all changed with 2012’s The Woman in Black, which, thanks in part to the drawing power of a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe, became the studio’s biggest commercial success as well as the highest grossing British film in over two decades. It also marked a welcome return to a kinder (but not necessarily gentler) brand of horror cinema.
Based on the Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name, The Woman in Black tells the tale Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe); a young lawyer who, four years prior, lost his wife after she gave birth to their son, Joseph. Suffering from both heartache and financial hardship, Arthur is tasked with settling the estate of a woman named Alice Drablow, whose manse, the dilapidated Eel Marsh House, lay in the outskirts of the coastal village of Crythin Gifford. Arthur leaves Joseph with his nanny, with plans that they’ll join him later in the week and make a holiday of it, and begins the long journey north from London.
During the trip, Arthur is befriended by Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds); a Crythin Gifford resident who offers him a ride to the inn. It’s here that Arthur quickly discovers that not all of Crythin Gifford’s residents are as hospitable as Sam. The surly keeper at the inn where’s he’s booked to stay informs him that there are no vacancies, and he’s forced to sleep in the inn’s cold, rundown attic. The next day, as he makes his way to the office of Jerome, the local solicitor, Arthur is greeted by the curious looks of children and the cold stares of their parents who quickly usher the young ones in off of the streets as Arthur passes. When he arrives at Jerome’s, the nervous lawyer thrusts a ream of paperwork in Arthur’s hands, informs him that he assured Arthur’s firm that he needn’t have made the trip in the first place, and then escorts him out the door and into a waiting carriage, whose driver has explicit orders to take him directly to the train station. Arthur, knowing his job depends on him procuring the documents housed within the Eel Marsh House, bribes the carriage driver to take him there. The carriage driver takes him as far as the rusted gate entrance, and, almost as soon as Arthur steps foot on the property, he experiences all manner of strange occurrences, from fleeting glimpses of shadowy figures and the sound of footfalls overhead, to the unnerving chime of a music box from behind a locked bedroom door. The strange happenings culminate with the appearance of a woman dressed in flowing black robes standing in the cemetery outside the house. Arthur rushes out after her only to find the carriage driver waiting for him, anxious to return to the village. Once there, Arthur visits the constable’s office to report an intruder on the property, but, while he’s waiting to file his report, two panicked young boys escort their obviously ill sister into the station, announcing that she’d just imbibed poison. Arthur calls for help, but the girl dies in his arms.
While the townsfolk grieve the loss of the girl, Arthur returns to the inn where the innkeeper’s wife pours him a drink to calm his nerves. She tells him that this is not the first time a child has committed suicide in Crythin Gifford, and that the town is cursed by a vengeful apparition known as Woman in Black. This grim specter is said to claim a child’s soul every time she appears, and, recently, took her three daughters from the very attic room in which Arthur’s staying.
Later that evening, a distressed Arthur dines at the Daily home with Sam and his wife, Elizabeth (Janet McTeer); a kindly woman obviously still reeling from the death of their child several years earlier. The dinner ends abruptly when Elizabeth, in a trance-like state, begins scrawling a message from her son into the dining room table with a knife. Sam has her medicated and taken off to bed, and then explains to Arthur that, since their boy’s death, his wife has been convinced that his spirit resides in her. Arthur shares the story of his own loss, as well as that of the Woman in Black, and Sam assures him that the tale is simply a fable concocted by the overactive imaginations of his fellow villagers. He also attributes Arthur’s experiences at the Eel’s Marsh House to his own grief, suggesting that, like Elizabeth, Arthur is simply grasping for evidence that there is life after death. Arthur isn’t so sure, but, what he is certain of is that he must complete his work at the house lest he lose his job, and Sam offers to take him there despite the villager’s demands that Arthur leave Crythin Gifford immediately.
Upon his return to the house, Arthur discovers notes and photographs detailing the life and death of Alice Drablow’s son, Nathaniel, a boy who was lost to the marsh, his body never recovered. Upon further investigation, Arthur discovers that Nathaniel was not Alice’s child at all, but, rather, the son of Alice’s mentally unstable sister, Jennet, who hanged herself shortly after Nathaniel’s death. As he begins to piece together the story, the ghostly occupants of the house make their presence known, and Arthur comes to the conclusion that, to free Crythin Gifford of its curse, he must find Nathaniel’s body, and reunite him with his mother.
I really had a lot of fun with The Woman in Black. The film is a welcome throwback to the gothic ghost stories of old, before the days of “found footage” and killer videotapes. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) populates his film with all of the essential ingredients for a successful gothic chiller, with flickering lanterns, pea-soup fog, and all manner of atmospheric anomalies and, at times, ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The film does take its time to get going, however, but patient viewers will be rewarded by some very well-crafted scares and excellent performances by both Radcliffe (who not only succeeded in making me forget about Harry Potter, but was thoroughly believable in the role) and the ever-reliable Hinds. I did find the somewhat downbeat ending to be a bit of a letdown, but one positive I took away from it is that the conclusion leaves the door open for future installments that I hear Hammer are already preparing as I write this!
The DVD from Sony presents the film in a crisp 2.35:1 transfer. This is a dark film, not just in terms of subject matter, but also in its choice of color palette. Blacks, grays, and other subdued hues dominate an image already teeming with shadows. This combined with the perpetually overcast skies, thick fog, and the drab stone architecture makes for an appropriately ominous looking film that only occasionally suffers from slight blocking in its darkest sequences (one bit that stands out is the shadowy hallway of Jerome’s office upon Arthur’s first visit). The image is complimented by a very well mixed 5.1 Dolby DTS soundtrack that is lush and atmospheric, with very convincing directional effects and rich, meaty bass.
Extras include a commentary track by Watkins and screenwriter, Jane Goldman, as well as a pair of short EPK-style featurettes. Rounding out the extras are trailers for other Sony releases.