Aims to Startle

'The Woman in Black' builds a whole lot of atmosphere only to give it all up in favor of cheap scares and loud noises.

The Woman in Black makes a few interesting choices that seem to acknowledge a great history of horror cinema. The film dresses up its characters in period garb to tell a pretty old-fashioned haunted house movie. With its bleak, chilling setting, and classically inclined tone, the film comes close to its goals. But in the end, it gives in to the trends of current horror cinema. The film builds a whole lot of atmosphere only to give it all up in favor of cheap scares and loud noises.

Lawyer Arthur (Daniel Radcliffe) is still hurting over the loss of his wife, who died while giving birth to their son. He’s sent to a remote village in the English seaside to process the estate of a woman who had just recently died. Once there, the villagers seem to be uneasy with his presence, prodding him to leave as soon as possible. Arthur soon discovers that the village is under the sway of a malicious spirit that leads their children to gruesome deaths. Arthur, fearful for the life of his son, tries to find a way to free the village from its curse.

The mystery isn’t a very good one. The mystery aspect of the story is contingent on the strange unwillingness if the villagers to just tell Arthur what’s going on. For most of the film, it feels like Arthur is just catching up to what the audience already knows, and his misadventures quickly start to feel tedious. The film is much more interesting when it drops the pretense of mystery and starts elaborating on the strange circumstances present in the village. The climax of the story is shaky, but the emotions carry it through somehow.

It’s worth noting that the film is produced by Hammer, a legend in horror cinema. The film, with its period trappings and occasional cheesiness, hearkens back to their glory days, back when Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing snarled magnificently at audiences. The problem is that they’re also trying to ride on recent trends in horror filmmaking. Old Hammer horror movies never set out to startle the audience. The threats were always present, and no matter how goofy they looked, the movie’s outsized sense of scale would create the illusion of terror. This film hits a few good notes, but it mostly settles for the transience of surprise. It could be called scary, but it’s the scary of modern horror: cheap scares based on loud noises.

Daniel Radcliffe has been so identified with a single role, and that makes it difficult to see him as anyone else. There’s a sense of boyishness still embedded in his performance, which betrays the character’s supposed darkness. He’s really trying, however, and in a few years, the spectre of his childhood will likely wear off. Radcliffe in this film works best when he is moving, the actor carrying a physicality that goes beyond his Potter past. The film is smart enough to let Radcliffe move, allowing the actor to carry the momentum of the film on his growing shoulders.

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The Woman in Black is at its best when it foregoes the cheap tricks of modern horror cinema. There are moments in the film that uphold the fine tradition of Hammer horror, assaulting audiences with a barrage of stately weirdness that creepily suggests that the world isn’t quite right. Sadly, the film isn’t immune to the charms of convenience, and it ends up going for the easy scares. The film is still a bit better than the shockfests of recent years. All it needs is a little more fortitude.

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