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
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.