The Woman in Black” begins with all the prerequisites of classic horror. There’s the fog, the ominous music and the sinister visages of antique dolls. Three young girls appear, clad in identical clothing a la the twisted twins of “The Shining” and a tragedy strikes. We’ve seen this pattern before, and it’s a formula that the producers of “The Woman in Black” (Hammer Films) have originated and perfected since their first flirt with horror in 1955. Unfortunately, their latest film winds up a mere shadow of their previous work.
Hammer’s involvement in the film isn’t the main hook, however. That would be the doe-eyed Daniel Radcliffe. Here, he’s traded in the wizard’s robes of “Harry Potter” for the more tailored look of Edwardian England where film takes place. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young but poor lawyer who has recently lost his wife during the birth of his only son. Conveniently, a case arises with which he can earn some money and prove himself to the firm. All Kipps has to do is settle the remaining papers of the Eel Marsh estate near an isolated and unsettling village. It’s all a slippery slope from this point on (quite literally in some scenes).
Now, there are several problems with the film, but appearance is not one of them. Visually, “The Woman in Black” is exquisitely rich in period detail. There are fine gold-chain pocket watches, eerie oil paintings and rich mahogany tones that cast an effective air of subtle menace. The shrouded graveyard of the Eel Marsh estate chills and its decrepit interior disturbs. Sadly, the house is the only fleshed-out element of the film.
For the majority of the movie, Radcliffe only sits and stares. Sometimes, he stands and ponders. Occasionally, he ambles through rooms with a petrified gaze. And, if the score is particularly charged, he may even run. But, for the most part, he’s just there to look scared. The role demands little else besides reaction shots from Radcliffe and, though he emotes with adequate aplomb, the lack of his character’s (and every other character’s for that matter) development renders any of his efforts moot. It’s only in the one or two moments of comedic relief where Radcliffe breathes life into the film’s deadened atmosphere.
Too bad Radcliffe isn’t the only focus of the film. There’s still that pesky titular character to deal with. That frightening woman in black. Like the ghost she is, she haunts the screen. Only, in a thoroughly troublesome manner. Because, who this woman is and how she is utilized throughout reveal the film’s fundamental flaws. She shocks when she spooks. The spectral special effects and amplified music cues assure that. But, these moments build up to nothing. As the backbone of the movie’s premise, there are naturally high expectations raised concerning her mystery, her purpose. Her history is disclosed. And it could very well be intriguing if, like the other characters and the story in general, it were expanded and given some nuance.
Instead, save for some few moments of fright, “The Woman in Black” becomes mired in its own foggy ether — paralyzed in plot and ultimately unsatisfying. To note, it is a movie that benefits from the communal experience of the cinema. But, the hallmark of a good horror film is its lingering power, its ability to seep into your peaceful slumber. Alas, this movie disappears from thought as quickly as its ghostly figure vanishes from the screen.