Friday, February 3, 2012

The Woman in Black

Review by Matt Finley

The trailer for THE WOMAN IN BLACK did little more than open up the film to preemptive pithy kiss-offs about Harry Potter in a haunted house. Personally, the promise of another horror flick hobbling around on the balsa-thin crutch of the notion that 19th century dolls and little kids can raise goose bumps did little to boost my enthusiasm. But guess what? The flick's actually a suitably creepy gothic trifle that any fan of classic horror fiction could easily count among their guilty pleasures. With more cobwebs than one of Corman's Poe adaptations and enough pseudo-Victorian gab, garb and gloominess to double the price of a Penny Dreadful, the period trappings are dumped and piled across the film's unapologetically familiar plot. But it's because, not in spite of this, that the movie is fun. If, like me, you can get on board with the Who?, What?, and Where? being, respectively, a Britsy mope, a haunted house straight out of a Warner Brothers cartoon, and 19th century England as reconstructed by the USS Hot Topic's holodeck, you'll feel an odd sense of relief to learn that the Why? is just because.

In a delightful acknowledgement that the film is meant as less period piece than period pastiche, the story's opening favors Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, with a young urban professional journeying to a remote country village to investigate real estate holdings. The professional here is Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), lawyer, widower, and all around Grumpy Gus, who, after continuing to shirk responsibilities four years after his wife's punting of the pail, has been given a final chance to save his job - travel to a remote northern village and close the estate of the late Alice Drablow, a recluse who lived in the palatial, ramshackle Eel Marsh House. Inexplicably feared by every last superstitious villager save for an alcoholic rationalist (Ciaran Hinds) and his spirit channeling wife (Janet McTerr), Kipp uncovers the sordid details surrounding Drablow's untimely death, and, after spending a predictably ill-advised night in Eel Marsh House, the truth behind the village's startlingly high pre-adolescent mortality rate. Oh, and Kipp himself has a pre-adolescent kid. Maybe that will be important to the story?

This being a film made in 2011, I shouldn't have to tell you that jump scares abound... but there are a few a good ones, and the movie certainly can't be accused of skimping on atmosphere - The winding road that snakes its way up to the corpse-grey edifice of Eel Marsh house? It's only accessible at low tide, meaning Kipps' view from the mansion is often a flooded, impassable expanse (i.e., cool). Also, props to WOMAN's props department for ensuring that the film's creepy toys device is actually backed up by some legitimately freakin'unsettling wind-up grotesqueries. Plus, despite some occasionally half-rumped rendering, I dug the titular woman in black, who's used sparingly enough that her vague, ebon-veiled visage retains the sense of cold incomprehensibility that ghosts really outta have (while still allowing her a few front-and-center shrieking undead diva moments, of course).

The whole feel of THE WOMAN IN BLACK is established in its very first moments. You know... the production company logos. CBS Films and Hammer Film Productions. Forget for a moment that Hammer is a mere shadow of its former self and CBS is just the US distributor. Screenwriter Jane Goldman's (KICK-ASS, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) script (an adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 novel) evokes a lorry-load of classic British horror conventions - a fog-draped marsh, gas lamps, a distressed spirit medium, and the fearful insularity of the bucolic village. Meanwhile, Director James Watkins (EDEN LAKE) gives the film a frustratingly artificial sleekness that, paired with some tetchy CG, gives off the overcooked vibe of a high-budget television pilot. I couldn't help but think: if it looked a little less calculated - a little more Corman Poe adaptation - there'd be no mistaking the dark, gothic, melodrama for lofty pretensions of true period horror. As it plays now, there will be plenty who disagree with my generous interpretation of the film's intentions.

Thankfully, for all its over-the-top gothic trappings, THE WOMAN IN BLACK never stops to toil in larger questions about man's desperation to come to grips with mortality. It doesn't flounder in a second act skeptic vs. believer undercard fight, or even entertain a predictable plotline suggesting the supernatural rigmarole could be the work of man, or science, or some hard-working scientist man. From the very start, the whole thing is content to be a cheesy, creepy horror movie. To say, "here's a ghost... now let's keep this thing moving. Radcliffe, tear up and look constipated. Cue big scary noise." To answer Why? with a daft, spooky because. (3 out of 4 Stars)

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