We went to see THE WOMAN IN BLACK at Fiona’s urging, because the book’s a modern spook classic, the Nigel Kneale TV version has one of the greatest scares ever (even if it otherwise borrows a bit too freely from THE INNOCENTS), because it’s from the revivified Hammer, and because advance word was good. Didn’t know it was from James Watkins, director of the acclaimed EDEN LAKE (which I haven’t seen because it sounded too nasty for my squeamish side) but that’s good too.
The film, in which Daniel Radcliffe is terrorised by some other small children, as well as by the titular funereally clad lady, is proper scary. Admittedly it gets by on powerful BOO! gotchas rather than dragging the suspense out for as long as it might, but fans of Slow Creeping Terror will nevertheless find much to be freaked by here. One shock moment — “That’s the sort of window faces appear at!” to quote Mr Withnail — made me scream like a woman, while another caused our friend Mr Brown to practically shoot vertically from his chair. I felt sorry for our dates, who were relying on us for manly protection.
The Victoriana is terribly vague — when is this supposed to be happening, exactly — but serves its atmospheric purpose in the best Hammer manner. Lots of vine-covered mansion, rattling carriages, puffing locomotives. Since this is a ghost story rather than an out-and-out horror, we’re deprived of what Philip Larkin approvingly called “tit and fang”, but I expect Hammer, still in the early days of new management, are limbering up for that.
Jane Goldman, the go-to girl for genre entertainment in the UK today (KICK ASS, STARDUST) pads out the slim plot with borrowings from Mario Bava’s KILL BABY KILL, inventing a rule that each sighting of the dreaded Woman causes… well, I won’t say exactly. In fact, spoilers are hard to come by here, since the plot is so slight and one-track. In a way it’s refreshing that it avoids major twists and reversals of the “He’s not who you think!” variety — it’s more like J-horror, and indeed the vengeful ghost is pretty much out of THE GRUDGE — she’s not open to negotiation.She takes a Hard Line.
Weakest element, as you may have guessed, is the man Radcliffe, who is never less than, well, physically present, and assumes a suitably worried expression throughout, but one can’t help, afterwards, imaging what a more substantial actor might have brought to the role.
Those who have seen THE ARTIST will recall the BANG! intertitle which serves a neat double-purpose (the film’s cleverest touch), seeming to mean one thing but instantly recontextualized by the following shot. Here, at the ending, of which I plan to give away NOTHING, there’s a similar switcheroo, with an image rather than a word being the ambivalent junction between two Schrodinger’s cat style possible outcomes to a single event. One solid, unambiguous image somehow serves as a signal-change shifting us from one reality to another… hard to describe, but I think you’ll dig it when you see it.