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Monday, March 18,2013

The spirit is willing — to do some killing

Daniel Radcliffe's 'Woman in Black' conjures up some old-fashioned chills

by James Sanford

One of the biggest shocks in “The Woman in Black” arrives in the first minutes, when you realize that Daniel Radcliffe, who seemed to be a child himself not so very long ago, is now playing the father of a 4-year-old. Granted, “Woman” is set near the end of the Victorian era, when it was commonplace for teens to marry and start families, but even so the sight of a cherubic little boy calling Radcliffe “Daddy” is a bit jarring.

That’s not the only unsettling element of the film, which is good news, considering it’s a ghost story. Appealingly old-fashioned — the movie is far more reliant on squeaky doors than gratuitous gore — and creepy in an agreeably corny way, “Woman” is a haunted-house yarn built on a sturdy foundation.

The movie, adapted from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, has the legacy of Hammer Film Productions behind it, which should be happy news for those who remember those 1950s/1960s horror classics starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (“The Curse of Frankenstein,” “The Horror of Dracula,” etc.). After decades in hibernation, the venerable studio has re-emerged: “Let Me In,” the excellent English-language remake of “Let the Right One In,” got the ball rolling, and “Woman” continues the promising comeback.

Although Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer contribute a bit of high-class hamming in supporting roles, Radcliffe is very much the center of attention here, and he carries the film confidently. He plays Arthur Kipps, a London lawyer who is still mourning the loss of his wife, who died in childbirth four years earlier. His boss has run out of sympathy and is threatening to throw Kipps out on the street if he doesn’t trek into the countryside and sort out the estate of a recently deceased lady who locked herself away for years in a decrepit mansion.

Her home was known as Eel Marsh House and was often cut off from the outside world by rising tides that covered the path leading to it; unsurprisingly, area real estate agents aren’t exactly battling for the listing on this particular property.

Local legend has it that an evil female spirit in funeral-ready fashions has haunted the region, luring children to their deaths; the movie’s splendidly startling opening scene shows a trio of lovingly groomed little cuties abruptly ending a perfectly proper tea party with their dolls and then hurling themselves out of the attic window, seconds after serving their last imaginary crumpets.

Kipps’ skepticism soon unravels as he spends a nerve-wracking night in Eel Marsh House, which turns out to be decorated with cobweb-clogged paintings, rocking chairs that rock themselves and some truly unpleasant displays of taxidermy. As for the nursery full of sinister-looking mechanical toys, it’s safe to say that any kid unfortunate enough to sleep there was almost certainly bedeviled by nightmares.

Lengthy stretches of the story are devoted to Kipps creeping through shadowy hallways and uninviting rooms, occasionally accompanied by the title character, who has a habit of popping up in unexpected places. Between Radcliffe’s wary stares and director James Watkins’ careful orchestration of the familiar chorus of creaks, bumps, shrieks and thumps, “Woman” generates a suitably chilly atmosphere that is, happily, not ruined by hasty last-minute rationalizations or awkward explanations: You’d better believe that Hell hath no fury like a Woman in Black scorned — or else.

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